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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 12, 2011

All four candidates back $89M budget plan

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — All four candidates running for the Guilderland School Board support the $89 million budget proposal. Voters will decide on both the budget and the board on May 17.

The three candidates who garner the most votes will serve three-year terms. The candidate who comes in fourth will fill out the year left on the term of a board member who resigned.

The three incumbents — Judy Slack, Allen Simpson, and Emilio Genzano — are running along with newcomer Rose Levy. Vice President Karen Barber is stepping down after two terms.

No election signs dot Guilderland lawns this May; campaigning has been low-key, after years of hotly contested elections, since all four candidates are guaranteed a spot.

Unlike in recent years, the teachers’ union is not endorsing any candidates this year. “We sent out a survey,” said Maceo Dubose, the president of the Guilderland Teachers’ Association. “Through our Representative Council, we decided not to endorse, seeing as they’re unopposed.”

Although school board candidates do not run on traditional political party lines, in recent years, slates of candidates have formed in Guilderland. This year, each candidate is running independently.

Developing a budget was difficult for the second year in a row with a decrease in state aid, increased pension and health-care costs, and the end to federal stimulus funds for the 2011-2012 budget.

If the public approves the budget on May 17, the tax hike for Guilderland residents is estimated at 3.48 percent. The $88,961,475 proposal represents a 1.73 percent increase in spending over this year’s budget.

If voters defeat the budget, the board can put the same budget up for a vote, put a revised budget up for a vote, or move to a contingency plan. If the budget were to be voted down again in June, the board would be required to move to a contingent budget. The board would then have to remove $260,000 in non-contingent items, said Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders.

The district currently has 5,236 students and expects a drop of 114 students next year, mostly at the elementary level. The district employs 737 full-time and 327 part-time workers. The proposed budget cuts 40 jobs, most of them teachers; this year’s budget cut 56 jobs.

The proposal also raises class sizes slightly and cuts foreign-language instruction at the elementary level, moves the middle school from a four-house to a three-house system, and cuts many extra-curricular activities at the middle and high schools.

The issues

The Enterprise asked the candidates to comment on these five topics:

— Role of a school board member: Candidates were asked who they serve. Certainly, each must balance the needs of many constituencies, but which is the primary one? Particularly if there is a crunch — for example, like now, because of economic tough times and cuts in aid — would their primary allegiance be to the students, the taxpayers, the parents, the teachers, or the superintendent?

—         Budget: Candidates were asked if they support the $89 million budget, and why or why not.

They were also asked if there were specific items they would have liked included, or if there were specific items they thought should have been cut. Some of the items current board members had differing opinions on include: foreign language at the elementary level, freshman sports, full-day kindergarten, elementary enrichment programs, and non-mandated sixth-grade health classes.

Candidates were asked what they thought of this year’s budget process where an in-depth budget review by a committee of volunteers was replaced by two community forums before the budget was drafted during which residents, parents, and staff talked in small groups to discuss what they valued in lists of proposed cuts.

Finally, candidates were asked what the school board should do if the budget were voted down.

—  Tax hike: School board members and administrators have worked in recent years to keep the tax-rate hike under 4 percent. The governor has proposed a 2-percent cap on the tax levy for next year, which could be overridden by 60 percent of the vote in a school district. Candidates were asked if programs and jobs should continue to be cut next year to keep the tax-levy increase below 2 percent or the tax-rate hike below 4 percent or would constituents be willing to pay more to preserve Guilderland’s traditional curriculum?

— Contracts: Salaries and benefits make up the largest share of the district budget, about three-quarters of expenses. In light of the rising costs for pensions and health care with the simultaneous cuts in state and federal aid, candidates were asked if school employees whose contracts are being negotiated should get raises above their step increases or should they get any raises at all. Teachers, for example, move up a 23-step system, with the first step at about $42,000 and the top step at about $72,000.

—         Full-day kindergarten: Guilderland, until last year, was among the 10 percent of school districts statewide that did not offer a full-day kindergarten program. A divided board included full-day kindergarten in the budget proposal two years ago, and the budget passed by a comfortable margin, which full-day kindergarten proponents took as an endorsement of the program. The district has reported that the full-day program is a success, reducing the number of students who need help in first grade. But two school board members this year favored going back to the half-day program to save $605,000 so that other programs wouldn’t have to be cut. Candidates were asked for their views on maintaining full-day kindergarten in future years.

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