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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 20, 2011

Facing tax cap
School board pushes technology, looks to public for innovation

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Faced with a 2-percent tax-levy cap, school board members here gave their budget priorities Tuesday night as they gear up for a community forum next week.

Guilderland in May passed an $89 million budget with 55 percent of the vote, concluding two years of cutbacks, resulting in the loss of about 100 jobs.

Rather than lists of items proffered in previous years, the conversation at Tuesday’s meeting was more philosophical.

“The questions our kids will have to solve haven’t been asked yet,” said board member Richard Weisz.

He, like other board members, stressed the importance of technology, advocating “distance learning” via computer for students of all abilities and as a means for sharing with the community what students have learned.

Weisz said he is aware the state has rules about seat time in a classroom but suggested a menu of online options for students in study halls. He also suggested restoring, at the kindergarten level, the teaching of Spanish; the Foreign Language Early Start program was cut from this year’s budget to help close a sizeable gap.

“I don’t have ways to spend money quite like Dick did,” said board member Judy Slack.

“We’re not spending, we’re investing,” countered Weisz.

“Technology has to become a broader aspect of life in the district,” said Slack, concluding, “We have to be innovative and look at things with new eyes.”

“We have to be creative without spending more money,” said Rose Levy.

Several board members referred to Tuesday’s announcement from the State Education Department that, by the 2014-15 school year, all state tests will have to be taken online. If the district has to upgrade its technology for required testing, board member Denise Eisele said, it should be done with distance learning in mind.

Barbara Fraterrigo, the board’s longest serving member, expressed frustration that more hasn’t been done with distance learning. “We’ve talked about it for five years and there’s been absolutely, positively no progress,” she said. With the recent building project nearly completed, the infrastructure should now be in place, she said.

“I don’t have a list of sacred cows…I’m thinking more globally,” said Vice President Gloria Towle-Hilt. She said she was inspired by recent remarks made by the state’s education commissioner, John B. King Jr., about the Board of Regents’ encouraging schools to re-think what they’re doing. For the last few years, in the midst of economic hardship, schools have cut back. “Now we’re at the core,’ said Towle-Hilt.

Now is the time to “really challenge ourselves,” she said, to ask if schools can be run differently, more cost effectively.

Since she retired from teaching at Farnsworth Middle School, Towle-Hilt said, she has been evaluating high-school teachers and found many of the techniques are similar to those back when she was in high school.

“That’s frightening to me,” said Towle-Hilt. “Our structures haven’t changed in 100 years.”

She suggested looking to other districts for innovation and bringing in consultants for new approaches, not “just Band-Aid-ing.”

“This economic climate can be seen as an opportunity,” she said to be creative and find ways to do things differently.

Allan Simpson agreed, “We need to look at delivering education in a different way.” He cited the way that businesses offer education through online webinars.

President Colleen O’Connell said that project-based learning has to become a priority. She is disappointed in Tech Valley High School, the regional school to which Guilderland has sent students. “They were supposed to teach us,’ she said about innovative approaches to cross-discipline, hands-on learning.

Emilio Genzano was not at Tuesday’s meeting because his mother recently died in a car accident, but he shared his views yesterday with The Enterprise. “We need to accelerate our move to technology,” he said, describing how his daughter “lives and dies by her iPad.”

He went on, “If we expect our children to compete and be who they want to be, we need to get there…We need to re-invent what we do.”

Common themes

Besides the thrust for more use of technology and creative approaches to teaching, board members sounded other common themes.

Simpson mentioned the district’s diminishing enrollment and suggested consolidating administrative posts and paying heed to a study on making the district’s special-education program more cost effective.

Fraterrigo, too, recommended cutting back on administrators. She suggested that the assistant athletic director post, which is relatively recent, might be cut as the current athletic director has announced his retirement. “It was one position,” she said.

On the recommendation of Superintendent Marie Wiles, a consultant has been looking at the district’s various school schedules and use of time and will make a report on Dec. 13. Some people are already lobbying, for example, to keep the tutorial periods at the high school, said O’Connell.

“We should all try to keep an open mind,” she urged.

Genzano told The Enterprise, “I really sincerely believe we need to look at how we do things, like how we use time.” He suggested analyzing the block schedule at the high school, for example. “Are we delivering our services in the most efficient way?” is the question Genzano said needs to be asked.

Board members also agreed that purchasing supplies, from musical instruments to office equipment, could best be done as part of a larger consortium to save money.

Fraterrigo reiterated her views, as she has in years’ past, on the importance of the district’s anti-bullying program. She stressed the critical importance of training teachers to intervene and training student bystanders to do the same.

Like Weisz, Fraterrigo has been a long-time supporter of teaching foreign languages in the elementary schools. “We know this is good for kids and yet we let it slip last year for the cost of a teacher,” she said.

Several board members also said they didn’t want the first budget draft, as it has for the last two years, to cut from music, sports, and clubs, only to have programs restored after an outpouring of community protests of the cuts and support for the programs.

“We did it for two years,” said Rose Levy. “I hope we don’t have to go through that again.”

“Things are so bad in education in California right now,” said Eisele, “you pay $500 to be in the band…It’s no longer education for all; it’s education for people who have money. I would hate to see that happen.”

She said music and art are necessary for a well-rounded education.

“We want to keep co-curriculars and athletics,” Genzano told The Enterprise, “but we have to be sensitive and real. Costs are costs.”

Genzano for the past two years has headed a group called Friends of Guilderland Athletics, which has raised funds from the community to keep freshmen sports.

“It’s an added help,” Genzano said of FOGA. “The job of a school district is to teach first…In today’s world, you can access people millions of miles away. But how you use that information is paramount. That’s what our mission should be.”

Genzano also cited the contribution of a pair of Guilderland brothers who ran a triathlon, raising $1,500 for FOGA. “Think of the lesson that teaches,,” he said. “We’ve got to teach our kids to contribute.”

President O’Connell was most definite on the subject in her concluding remarks. She said music, art, and sports “are off the table” for cuts unless fewer sections are needed because of declining enrollment.

“It pits people against each other,” said O’Connell. “A little girl told us last year music was her sport.”

Community forum

“We’re going to try to innovate ourselves out of this economy,” said O’Connell of a session scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 25, from 7 to 9 p.m., at the high school.

The community forum is modeled on two that the district held last year, attended by hundreds of people who discussed their budget priorities in small groups.

This year’s session, months earlier than last year’s, will focus on innovation rather than the budget for 2012-13. A similar session will be held for faculty and staff.

The Oct. 25 forum will start with a presentation by Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders, explaining that the 2-percent tax cap imposed by the state applies to the tax levy — the total amount the district can raise from taxpayers — not the tax rate. The new law allows the cap to be overridden by 60 percent of the popular vote. It also specifies that the cap will be set at the inflation rate if that is lower.

Sanders told The Enterprise that he does not yet have enough information to calculate the budget gap Guilderland may face under the 2-percent tax-levy cap.

Wiles said she will share the district’s newly crafted mission and vision statements with those attending the Oct. 25 forum. The statements — which replace the former mission statement, “Empowering all students to succeed in the 21st Century” — were developed in two sessions under the leadership of Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton. Wiles called it “a feat to bring 80 people together to craft a few sentences to capture what we are about.”

The new mission statement, which Wiles termed “the what,” is: “It shall be the mission of the Guilderland Central School District to inspire all students to be active, life-long learners, able to achieve their highest potential in a demanding and ever-changing global community.”

The vision statement, which Wiles called “the how,” is: “We will provide for all a safe and welcoming environment, where students, parents and staff are joined in the pursuit of academic excellence and personal growth. Thus we shall provide a rich and rigorous education for all learners that, upon graduation, they are poised, capable and ready to meet the developments, challenges and opportunities of their future.”

Wiles will also share a series of “belief statements” about the district, which are still being fine-tuned.

At this point, she said, only five or six community members have signed up for the forum but the hope is that the recently mailed school newsletter will bring out more people.

Last year, the district announced there would be a $4.2 million budget gap if the tax-rate hike were to be kept at under 4 percent. This caused many to attend the budget sessions to advocate for the programs they most valued.

Referring to the board’s current stance that art, music, and sports programs shouldn’t be cut, Weisz on Tuesday urged the public not to think, “There’s nothing to scare me…I’m not going to come.”

The forums, he said, educate people about the constraints facing the district, and that Guilderland, in the past, has been at the forefront of urging statewide changes, such as on the pension system.

“It’s how you develop leaders for the future…you get engaged in the process,” said Weisz.

He concluded, “Don’t come because you’re not afraid, come because you’re interested in making it better.”

“Help us find ways to change and innovate…We are not talking money; we are talking ideas,” said Slack.

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