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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 16, 2012

GCSD super will sacrifice advisory to save programs

GUILDERLAND — Although Superintendent Marie Wiles will not present her budget for next year until March 1, she indicated Tuesday she will recommend a spending plan that eliminates the popular high school advisory period.

“If we don’t do it next year, we’d have to do it the following year,” she said. “It would allow us to preserve courses.”

The reshaped high-school day will save money and allow for more flexibility in filling classes, she said. Similarly, proposed changes in the shape of the middle-school day, most notably eliminating a tutorial period, would also save money.

With a rollover budget, preserving the staff and program in its current $89 million plan, Guilderland is facing a $2.6 million gap in resources. New state legislation puts a cap on the tax levy unless 60 percent of the voters approve the budget in May. Guilderland hasn’t met that mark of approval since the recession started.

“The board can say, ‘I don’t agree with the budget,’ and we’re back to the drawing board,” said Wiles at Tuesday’s school board meeting.

In light of proposed budget cuts, two citizens spoke to the board on Tuesday night. Joe Giordano, a seventh-grader at Farnsworth Middle School, presented the board with a petition with 105 signatures — so far — urging that the enrichment program not be cut. One of the proposals being considered is to eliminate the elementary and middle-school enrichment posts; cutting the two jobs would save $140,000.

Giordano, who has benefited from the enrichment program, told The Enterprise that the petition was his idea.

Referring to the long-time enrichment teacher, Deborah Escobar, the petition says, “We believe enrichment is an important part of the school day and that Mrs. Escobar provides opportunities that are vital to our learning.”

Marie Irving, the mother of a Farnsworth eighth-grader and an educator herself, spoke passionately to the board about “how important relationships are to middle-schoolers.”

She said it is “so ironic” that teachers are slated to be cut based on their years with the district “when we are fighting so hard not to judge students by a single measure.”

Middle-school teachers need to have empathy, said Irving. “They win their students’ hearts in order to touch their students’ minds.”

Teachers also need to be able to leave their egos at the door, she said. Her son’s academic performance has improved because of his relationship to a teacher who is now slated to be cut, Irving said.

“I finally have a son who believes he is a learner…That happened because of a relationship, because a teacher cared,” she said, urging board members to bring relationship research to their decision-making table.

After the meeting, Wiles told The Enterprise that she agreed with everything Irving had said. “Learning occurs with a trusting relationship,” said Wiles. “I, too, am frustrated by having one number,” she said of the years of employment.

Wiles noted that Civil Service Law requires cuts be made according to a seniority list; this is frequently stated as: Last hired, first fired.

Asked if lists have been made up of Guilderland teachers who are likely to be cut, Wiles said, no. “I haven’t released a budget,” she said, noting that staff members who were most recently hired may surmise that their jobs may be on the line if cuts are made.

Answering concerns on scheduling changes

The board on Tuesday also heard answers to concerns on new school schedules that Rose Levy said teachers had brought to her.

Answers to the list of concerns are now posted on the school district’s website, said Wiles.

“People have to remember, this is driven by finances,” said board member Richard Weisz of the scheduling changes.

Twelve years ago, when the high school moved to a block schedule, with longer classes that meet fewer times a week, it incorporated an advisory period as part of the school day. The new plan is to eliminate the advisory period and, instead, add a shorter activity period at the end of the day.

Similarly, a tutorial period would be eliminated at the middle school.

Wiles said that the biggest concern at the middle school is how to make sure there is adequate support for struggling students. Referring to Individualized Education Programs for special-needs students, Wiles said, “We’re focusing on the ‘I’ in IEP.”

She concluded, “Will people mourn the loss of tutorial and advisory? Absolutely, and they should.”

The question, she said, is: “What do we hold onto and at what cost?…Making these fundamental changes will position us much better going forward.”

Focusing on high-school scheduling, Levy on Tuesday asked the principal, Thomas Lutsic, how many students had signed up for the new eighth period next year.

Lutsic estimated about 100, and said, “We can accommodate the vast majority.”

Board President Colleen O’Connell said that an analysis of the block schedule was done three years after it was first implemented. “The report showed teachers and students had adapted,” she said, adding there was no mention of the cost of the advisory period.

In the nine years that followed, she said, there was no analysis of the advisory period. “How did clubs morph into it?” asked O’Connell. She went on, referring to a series of short-term high-school principals, “There was a vacuum of leadership and this was never looked at…This fiscal crisis has caused us to examine it.”

“Advisory was great for my kids,” said Weisz. But, he went on, faced with a trade-off between eliminating the advisory period or eliminating music or sports instead, “I’d say, give up advisory.”

He concluded, “We’re going to lose a lot if we don’t save $700,000 by restructuring.”

Weisz said the district was being forced to change “because of the cap.”

“There is no tax cap,” O’Connell chided him. “There’s a tax-levy limit.”

Lutsic said that scheduling students’ classes is “an extremely detailed and extensive amount of work.” So, he said, “We’ve proceeded as if we’re adopting the new schedule without advisory.”

Although Lutsic said changes could be made, he concluded, “We’re right at the point now where we’d really like to know…Our students and the teachers need to know…There needs to be some closure….”

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

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