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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, February 2, 2012
Facing budget shortfall
GUILDERLAND The school district on Tuesday asked those most affected by budget cuts the students for advice on how to proceed with next year’s spending plan.
“For the first time, we decided to go right to the source,” said Superintendent Marie Wiles.
The hour-and-a-half session started with a presentation by Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders geared for students. He went over the three levels of government federal, state, and local describing the services they provide and the ways they raise money.
Sanders then presented pie charts showing how the current year’s $89 million budget is spent about three-quarters on salaries and benefits. “It’s a people-intensive business,” he said.
He then showed a pie chart on revenues, with a quarter coming from state aid and 69 percent from local property taxes.
To explain the state’s tax-levy limit new this year Sanders invented a high school student who wanted to buy a car and planned to finance it through mowing lawns. “Joe” couldn’t meet the rising costs for gas, equipment, and a helper and still make enough to pay for the car because of a new town law that forbade him to increase his fees by more than 2 percent until the Mets win the World Series. “This will take a long time,” said Sanders.
From the trenches
The room was filled with purposeful chatter as students discussed, in small groups, the way recent cuts had affected their education and how they would close the $3.2 million gap the district faces for next year.
Administrators and at least one school board member circulated throughout the room, listening in on various conversations.
Seven tables each seated five to nine students and an administrator who served as facilitator. Stephen Hadden, the administrator for special education, oversaw a table with five earnest students. Hadden said afterwards he was impressed with their intelligence and motivation.
Most of them said the impact of cutting nearly 100 jobs in the last two years hadn’t had much of an effect on their education.
“Little things here and there,” said Zachary “Zack” Cleary, a junior, who noted he had wanted to take two science courses but couldn’t.
He also said that having one teacher for science class and another for lab wasn’t as good as having a single teacher for both.
“I don’t know anyone that likes it,” agreed Carli Weinberg, a sophomore.
Several students said the larger class sizes were undesirable. “It’s a little uncomfortable,” said Amanda Justiniano, a sophomore, talking about the physical crowding with up to 30 students in a classroom. She went on, “You don’t get the attention you need.”
“It is annoying you can’t move,” agreed Weinberg.
Alexandra “Ali” Sima, a junior, has 30 people in her English class. “That’s a lot,” she said.
Freshman John “Jack” Grabek said he has just 16 in his English class.
Wiles noted that class sizes would be better balanced if the popular advisory period were eliminated, allowing for more flexibility in scheduling. (See related story.)
Sima said that the same English teacher has just 14 students in another class and uses a different teaching style there. “It’s so much more personal,” she said.
The cutback in late bus runs from four nights a week to three didn’t bother the students. “I’d never really stay after on Friday,” said Cleary.
“Let’s pretend you control the whole school district,” said Hadden. “What would you do to close the gap we face for next year?”
“I’d stop funding all sports and extracurricular activities,” said Weinberg, noting that academics should be the central focus of school. She suggested a “pay to play” approach.
Cleary said that, if freshman sports had been cut, “That would have been a big thing for me.” Two years ago, most freshman sports were cut from the budget but a group of sports boosters, called Friends of Guilderland Athletics, raised the needed money to pay the coaches and continue the programs.
“Extra-curriculars are important, and so are sports,” said Sima, noting that colleges look at those as part of the admissions process.
Hadden asked the students if they thought the vo-tech courses to which about 40 students are sent each year to learn a trade should be cut, or if honors or college-level courses should be cut.
“You want smart kids to go to their utmost potential,” Cleary responded.
Weinberg said she’d go to a private school if the advanced courses were cut. She also said, “The kids that go to vo-tech, that’s what they need, and the parents may not be able to afford it.
“Obviously,” she said, “We’d like it all.” But she recommended supporting the kids “who want the help” if choices have to be made.
When Hadden asked if grounds-keeping could be reduced, most of the students nodded, yes, but Cleary, a soccer player, said of the playing fields, “They do a really good job at it,” and it’s important to the sport.
Advice for the future
Wiles next went over four areas of change proposed for next year using data-driven budgeting, reshaping school schedules, cutting two administrative posts, and investing in technology. She asked for the students to comment on whether such changes would be supported, and what questions or concerns they might have. A list of student responses, Wiles said, will be posted on the district’s website, at www.guilderlandschools.org.
On the controversial recommendation to cut the advisory period at the high school, Wiles said, “Kids like it; teachers like it. We get that. The question is, are the trade-offs worth it?”
Cleary said, if advisory were cut, he wouldn’t be able to continue helping other students. He also reported that extra time is often needed to complete art projects, which would be difficult without advisory, since it’s hard to bring large canvasses and other art supplies home.
Echoing a familiar theme, he said, “If you want to get into college for art, you need a portfolio.” He also said that his art teacher had told him that the proposed plan makes no accommodation for art during the study-hall periods.
“I feel like study hall will be a problem for projects you’re doing with other people,” said Grabek. “They might not have study hall at the same time.”
Weinberg, who described herself as “anti-advisory,” said, “Other schools don’t have advisory. I’d be interested in looking at that.”
Few of the students in Hadden’s group voiced opinions on administrative cuts. “I don’t really know what they do,” said Weinberg of administrators. “I wouldn’t know what would happen if they were cut.”
The students nodded, though, when Hadden asked if they thought the community would support the reduction of administrators.
Hadden said he was surprised by the students’ response to technology investments; he had thought they would be eager to have more technology in the school, like Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) throughout the building.
“We’re pretty much set on technology,” said Cleary. “I’ve never had problems getting a hold of a computer.”
The students said they had access to the technology they needed at home, implying they learned other things at school.
“We have the rest of our lives to get all the technology we want,” said Weinberg. “We don’t need to spend money on it.”
“We have it at home,” agreed Justiniano.
Cleary conceded that Internet access at school “would be cool” but not at the expense of something else.
Weinberg suggested Wi-Fi could be offered in one area, like the library.
On distance learning, the students had questions about the mechanics of how it would work How would papers be passed out? How would students tell the teacher to slow down? They also expressed concerns about the cost.
Referring to Wiles’s description of a kindergarten class’s virtual “field trip” to the Bronx Zoo, Weinberg said, “That seems a little weird. Why not just go to the zoo?”
But, she went on, responding to the idea that, while Guilderland by itself might not be able to afford a Chinese teacher, students might study the language through a distance-learning class, “Learning Chinese would be cool.”
Wiles concluded the session by encouraging the students to invite their parents to the third “Community Conversation” on the budget to be held next Tuesday evening, Feb. 7, at the high school.
By Melissa Hale-Spencer