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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, June 2, 2011
Elementary staff concerned about social worker cut
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND Even as the superintendent and board president thanked the community at last week’s school board meeting for participating in the budget process, making difficult choices, then ultimately passing an $89 million spending plan, the ramifications of those difficult choices were being felt.
Six staff members spoke to the board about their concerns with losing an elementary-school social worker position. The district next year will have 10 rather than 11 social workers, for a savings of $74,000.
Five teachers from Westmere Elementary School spoke to the board about the value of having a full-time social worker in each of the five elementary schools. The social worker, said kindergarten teacher Debra Hoffman, has a “powerful positive effect” on students, family, and staff, offering “sweeping services” that provide a foundation to help every child succeed.
Eliminating a social worker post had been on a long list of possible cuts that were discussed at two community forums and one faculty forum as part of the budget process. The specifics of the cut were not outlined, though, and staff just last week found out that the plan is to reduce the social worker one day a week at each of the five elementary schools.
Superintendent Marie Wiles made the recommendation to cut a social worker in her initial budget proposal as the district was trying to close a $4 million budget gap. On May 5, when board members discussed their views on the budget, six of the nine said a social worker at the middle school should not be cut, with several expressing concerns about special-needs students. Board President Richard Weisz said at the time that, from the list of possible cuts discussed by staff, the social worker at the middle school was the one thing the staff agreed should be kept.
On May 12, as Wiles presented her revised budget, she said it was “never the intent” to cut a social worker from the special-education program, for which fewer than five are required. She reiterated figures showing Guilderland’s ratio, with 10 social workers, of social workers to students would be 1:530 while the federal recommendation is 1:800.
She also cautioned people to “be careful about how we define a crisis,” which she defined as “a child in danger of hurting himself or others.” The district already has in place, Wiles said, “a tremendous amount of resources” such as assistant principals, house principals, counselors, and nurses as well as crisis teams at each school.
After last Tuesday’s board meeting, Wiles explained to The Enterprise that she had asked Stephen Hadden, the administrator for special services, to look at student needs and see where the cut could best be made. He used a software program on IEP services (Individualized Educational Program services required for students in special-education programs).
Hadden found the greatest needs at the middle school and high school, she said, so he recommended reduction at the elementary schools. Under the new plan, Wiles said, each elementary school will be staffed with a social worker four days a week. “We’ll work to make sure on the fifth day there is a school psychologist there,” she said.
Liz Gingrich, a second-grade teacher at Westmere, highlighted for the board the social skills program run by the school social worker, Louise Lombardo, where children are taught about empathy, problem-solving, and anger management. She said the program sets the tone for kindness and acceptance at the school.
Jeanmarie Moore, another second-grade teacher at Westmere, spoke about the Peaceful School Bus program that “wards off troubling interactions” formerly common on largely unsupervised bus rides, and reduces referrals to the principal.
Lisa O’Brien, a Westmere first-grade teacher, told the board about the wide range of clubs for students set up by the social worker so that defined groups wrestling with social issues such as Banana Splits, offering support for students whose parents have divorced.
Amy Martin, a fourth-grade teacher at Westmere, talked about the importance of home visits made by the school social worker, during which she can observe and give feedback about home routines.
Westmere third-grade teacher Tracy Martone spoke about the hundreds of situations handled by the school social worker that are not part of an IEP. Students dealing with complicated issues like divorce, illness, or even tragic world events can get help from the social worker, which improves their school behavior and success, she said.
“We’re very worried about what social work will look like next year or in the future,” said Martone.
Hoffman concluded by asking the board to return a full-time social worker to each elementary school for the 2012-13 school year. Next year, she said to applause from the gallery, “This change will be strongly felt.”
Marie Mitchell, a teaching assistant at Pine Bush Elementary School, told the board that it would be harder for social workers to be productive traveling to other school buildings. She also said that the elementary schools have only two non-instructional staff members who can help with immediate needs one social worker, and one principal who is often busy.
She said, too, that children are less likely to open up to someone they don’t know. She mentioned the loss of much classroom teaching assistant time. And she said it was dangerous when children are in crisis.
Her comments, too, were met with applause.
“They provide a wealth of wonderful services,” Wiles told The Enterprise of the elementary-school social workers. “We’re scaling back a little.” She noted that the services offered at the five schools take on the personality of the social worker at each.
“We’ll need to be thoughtful,” said Wiles. “As with everything, we’ll assess how it goes.”
Asked about the request for restoration in 2012-13, she said, “It’s impossible to predict what the following year brings.” She added that that an expert on scheduling, Elliot Merenbloom, is being consulted this summer, and it may be possible not to take the principals out of the buildings as much, perhaps meeting after school when students wouldn’t be in crisis.
Near the start of the meeting, Wiles had thanked the community for its support. She noted the community was “not shy” about providing feedback on budget priorities, with countless e-mails, phone calls, and letters.
“I don’t think difficult times are behind us,” she said.
In other business, the board:
Honored the district’s retiring staffers with plaques, hugs, food, and applause. “May you look back with pride on all you have done…May you look forward with anticipation…” said Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Lin Severance;
Heard praise from Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton for the May 18 “Taking a Stand” forum with John Halligan as the keynote speaker. Since his son Ryan killed himself in 2003 after being bullied online, Halligan has devoted his life to raising awareness about the subject. Halligan spoke to high school and middle school students during the day, and over 400 parents attended his evening presentation. For the full story, go online to www.AltamontEnterprise.com and look under Guilderland archives for May 12;
Learned that the state legislature passed a resolution commending the Guilderland High School Chamber Choir and Wind Ensemble for receiving top honors at the National Heritage Music Festival Competition;
Heard that Altamont Elementary School was awarded a $600 grant from the Eastern New York Chapter of the Air and Waste Management Association to begin a composting program that will use worms to turn cafeteria waste into compost. The grant will also purchase a large outdoor composter. The goal is to reduce the amount of waste food and paper that goes to the landfill;
Heard from Singleton that the district held its annual spring meeting on priorities, but structured it differently this year so that the conversation focused on the district’s mission, its fundamental purpose. A fall meeting will follow.
“Our mission statement is vintage 1989,” said Wiles of Guilderland’s current declaration of purpose: “Empowering all students to succeed in the 21st Century.”
More than 80 participants in the 90-minute session on May 10 were asked to focus on the graduates of 2024, who will be kindergartners next year. Wiles called it “a re-thinking of what we want to accomplish” and said that the direction that comes from the committee’s work will determine how the district allocates it money, time, and talents;
Heard praise from Wiles for the new state education commissioner, John B. King Jr., appointed by the board of Regents on May 16. She said he was the state’s youngest education commissioner and the first of African-American and Hispanic descent.
King, she said, has “lots of experience” and has been nationally recognized as a leader of urban schools, closing the achievement gap. He worked most recently as a senior deputy commissioner in the State Education Department, leading the effort to put into place the Regents reform agenda and coordinating New York’s successful Race to the Top application;
Voted to elect Lynne Lenhardt Area 7 director of the New York State School Boards Association for a two-year term beginning Jan. 1, 2012;
Received policies to review from the board’s policy committee on community and news media relations; on the district clerk; on acceptable use policies for Internet, computer network, and technology equipment; on school admissions; on fiscal accounting and reporting; and on Medicaid compliance;
Adopted a policy on communication among individual board members in accordance with the state’s Open Meetings Law, protecting the public’s right to observe meetings and deliberations of elected boards. While individual members, the policy states, may communicate to share information or expertise, the board does not condone any communication, such as by telephone, conference call, mail, or e-mail, directly or serially, which has the intent or effect of circumventing the Open Meetings Law.
Also, the policy states, in compliance with the state’s Freedom of Information Law, communications maintained in physical form, including e-mail stored in a computer, that are received or prepared for use in board business may be regarded as public records, inspected by any person upon request, unless otherwise made confidential by state or federal law.
Board President Richard Weisz said he applauded the board “for doing it the right way from the beginning,” using e-mails only to see who’s coming to a meeting;
Approved 42 change orders totaling $126,168 as the district closes out Phase 1 of its $27 million building project. Phase 2 work over the summer will include inside work at Westmere Elementary School, and outside work at Lynnwood Elementary, Farnsworth Middle School, and most extensively the high school where the front sidewalks will be replaced. The goal is still to complete the project by the end of 2011;
Awarded a contract to County Waste & Recycling Service Inc., the lowest bidder, for the next three school years at $41,750 a year to handle garbage, rubbish, and recycling for the district;
Approved the issuance of a Tax Anticipation Note not to exceed $5 million in anticipation of taxes to be levied for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012. “It will help us through the summer,” said Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders until the tax collection in the fall. The goal, he said, is to borrow the least amount of money for the shortest period of time.
The school district’s fiscal year starts in July but state aid and taxes don’t come in until the fall; the money is used to meet payroll, pay bills, and for needed supplies and equipment.
“Every time we have to borrow money, it costs the taxpayers more,” said board member Barbara Fraterrigo. She went on to rail against the governor: “Cuomo keeps telling us we have all this money so it’s going to cost us more money.”
Last year, said Sanders, the interest was under $30,000; and
Met in executive session to discuss negotiations with the Guilderland Teacher Aides Association and with the Guilderland Teachers’ Association, and to discuss the search for a Guilderland High School principal. Brian McCann is retiring this month after two years as the high school principal, following 17 years as an assistant principal. Applications were due on April 25 and interviews were conducted on May 5 and May 12.