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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 16, 2012

GCSD budget gap at $2.6M
Citizens and staff consider cuts in four areas

GUILDERLAND — The revenue gap faced by the school district for next year’s budget has narrowed to $2.6 million — down from $3.2 million — because the amount Guilderland has to pay to the Teachers’ Retirement System is less than had been anticipated.

If the as-yet-to-be-proposed budget were to be defeated twice at the polls, the new tax-cap law requires the local levy to be no greater than this year, meaning Guilderland would have to cut $4.2 million if it rolled over the same programs and staff it has under this year’s $89 million spending plan.

Faced with these difficult numbers, about three score people — mostly parents and staff — gave their views on Feb. 7 at the district’s third “Community Conversation” this budget season.

They met in small groups to give their views on programs and services, in four different areas, that are under consideration for reduction or elimination in next year’s budget.

“We have been in the reducing mode for a couple of years,” Superintendent Marie Wiles told the forum participants. Guilderland has cut close to 100 jobs in the last two years. Three-quarters of the Guilderland budget, typical of all schools, goes for salaries and benefits.

Wiles presented pie graphs that showed the percentage of recent reductions in various employment categories. School-bus drivers sustained the lowest percentage of cuts at 2.1 percent. The top three were teaching assistants at 10.13 percent, clerical staff at 7.3 percent, and administrators at 5.9 percent.

“The pain is shared,” said Wiles, noting district leaders had heard the public’s call to “stay as far away” as possible from direct delivery of student services when making cuts.

“We’ve looked at ways to do things fundamentally differently,” she said, noting proposed changes in scheduling at the middle school and high school, changing administrative structure to cut two posts, re-organizing the leadership team and the instructional support teams for special education, and using data-driven budgeting. (See related stories online at HYPERLINK "http://www.AltamontEnterprise.com" www.AltamontEnterprise.com under Guilderland archives for Oct. 20 and 27 and Dec. 15, 2011, and Jan. 12, 19, and 26 and Feb. 2, 2012.)

Four categories for cuts

Forum participants were asked for their views on four categories of potential reductions. The recommendations were based on schedule changes, decline in enrollment, restructuring, data-driven analysis, and additional reductions.

“Your goal here,” Wiles told the volunteers, “is really to think about these tough choices. We can’t have everything we’ve always had…What will do the least harm…or serve us best in the long run?”

Wiles, as she had in a similar session last year, stressed that the proposals were “a list,” not “the list.” She will present her budget proposal on March 1.

“We need bright people like you to help us make the best tough choices,” said Wiles.

The four categories are:

— Academic programs, for a total of $1,176,000 in potential reductions. The two big-ticket items both come from savings at the middle school.

Nearly half-a-million dollars would be saved by cutting 6.7 posts, moving from a four-teacher to a five-teacher teaming model at Farnsworth. Teachers in all three grade levels — sixth, seventh, and eighth — would have longer class periods and a larger student load.

By moving from a nine-period to an eight-period day at Farnsworth, three posts would be cut, saving $210,000.

Other proposals include increasing class sizes in second through fifth grades; reducing science, social studies, and English sections at the high school due to declining enrollment; eliminating advanced foreign-language courses at the high school; eliminating computer programming and statistics courses at the high school; and reducing foreign-language sections at the middle school.

—Enhanced educational opportunities, for a total of $469,000 in potential reductions. The two cuts that would save the most come at the elementary level.

For a savings of $147,000, fourth-grade instrumental music would be cut, and, for a savings of $140,000, elementary and middle-school enrichment positions would be cut.

Reductions would include physical-education, technology, music, health, art, and business sections at the high school — all because of declining enrollment; and art sections at the elementary school because of a change in scheduling.

— Health, social-emotional, and academic support services, for a total of $984,450 in potential reductions. The four big-ticket items come from savings at the elementary level.

Reducing 7.7 teaching-assistant posts in kindergarten and first grade would save $207,900. Reducing five teaching assistants in elementary learning workshops would save $135,000. Reducing 3.8 teaching-assistant posts for reading and math support would save $102,600. And reducing one-and-a-half social-worker positions at the elementary level would save $114,000.

Other savings would come from having the Instructional Support Teams at each elementary school led by a psychologist rather than a teacher, cutting one occupational therapist, cutting one reading teacher at the high school and one teaching assistant for reading, cutting nine-tenths of a speech therapist post, cutting two teaching assistant posts for learning workshop and six-tenths for counseling at the high school, cutting half a social-worker post at the high school, and cutting six-tenths of an occupational therapy assistant and four-tenths of a physical therapist district-wide.

—Educational support services for a total of $387,910 in potential reductions. The largest savings are for cutting two administrative posts — $83,370 for eliminating the assistant director for physical education, health, and athletics, and $64,500 for eliminating a special-education administrator at the elementary level — and for cutting one-and-a-half custodial posts district-wide to save $65,630.

Other reductions include cutting half a post for technology support, cutting a clerical staffer at the high school, cutting a bus driver, reducing media support at the high school by four-tenths of a post, cutting six assistant coaching positions, cutting half of a post for district clerical staff, and cutting a quarter of a post for a bus driver trainer.

Wiles said this week that about 100 staff members attended a similar session on Feb. 9.

“We got the conversation started,” she said.

Responses from the different discussion groups will be posted on the district’s website at guilderlandschools.org.

Wiles concluded, “I didn’t hear anything that surprised me.”

Not on the grid

One of the discussion groups at the Feb. 7 forum was made up of school board members. They raised two issues that were not among the lists for possible savings in the four quadrants — returning to half-day kindergarten and closing one of the five elementary schools.

Those items were discussed at Tuesday’s school board meeting. A third item not on the list, and not discussed publicly on Tuesday, was containing salaries and benefits, which make up three quarters of the budget, and would make most other cuts unnecessary. The board is currently at impasse in contract negotiations with its two largest unions.

About full-day kindergarten, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton said at Tuesday’s meeting that, when New York State adopted Common Core Learning Standards, it added pre-kindergarten standards. “The implications are significant,” said Singleton.

He also said that recent research clearly shows significant merits to full-day programs, and he highlighted that research in a six-page memo.

“It’s not even a debate anymore,” said Singleton.

Most compelling, he said, is the data from Guilderland students.

Guilderland started a full-day kindergarten program in 2009, so the first full-day students are now in second grade.

Benchmark assessments for reading halfway through first grade in 2009-10 showed that 42 percent of students — they had gone to the half-day program —were at or above the benchmark. The next year, 82 percent of first-graders, who now had completed full-day as opposed to half-day kindergarten, were at or above the benchmark. And this year, despite the fact that the benchmark was increased, meaning the bar was raised, 83 percent were at or above it.

At the same time, referrals for special services decreased markedly, which Singleton termed “a mode of preventative instruction.” He said this would translate into cost savings in the long run.

Closure of an elementary school was not included in the lists, said Wiles, “because we did not have time to come up with a study.”

The months-long process, she said, would require direction from the board and would involve an analysis of all the buildings. While district enrollment is in decline, Wiles said, it is not “precipitous decline.”

There is also the possibility, Wiles said, that, with the growth of nanotechnology in the area, there could be a huge influx in population.

Board member Richard Weisz suggested that it would take at least a year of “internal work” to come up with a five- to 10-year strategic plan.

“It’s easy to say closing a building saves money,” said Weisz. “But to keep class sizes the same…we have to see if we get any bang for the buck.”

“There’s a very emotional component,” said board President Colleen O’Connell, stressing that all the buildings would have to be studied rather than just targeting one. She cited the closing of the rural Clarksville Elementary School by the neighboring Bethlehem district as “very divisive.”

Although there would not be time for a thorough study in time for next year’s budget, Wiles did not rule out closing a school, depending on the outcome of study. “We have to turn over every stone,” she said.

— By Melissa Hale-Spencer

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