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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 22, 2012

FMS speaks up
Outcry over proposed budget cuts garners applause

GUILDERLAND — Just over 100 people packed Tuesday’s school board meeting, applauding for each of the 34 speakers who criticized cuts proposed for next year’s budget. Many of the speeches — from students, teachers, and parents — were testimonials for the worth of the current system.

After the meeting, Superintendent Marie Wiles said she hadn’t heard any alternatives for closing the $2.6 million gap in revenues. The reality, Wiles said, is “we’re facing diminishing aid and a tax-levy limit. We have fewer resources. How do we respond? That’s what we need to be talking about.”

On March 1, Wiles had proposed an $89 million spending plan for next year that stays within the new state-set tax-levy cap, increasing spending over this year by just .17 percent. She focused on saving programs by rearranging the school day and making cuts based on enrollment and meeting student needs.

Because of the decrease in federal aid and increased salary, pension, and health-insurance costs, Wiles’s plan calls for cutting 30 jobs — following the loss of close to 100 jobs in the previous two years.

Three-quarters of the budget goes for salaries and benefits. Guilderland currently has eight open contracts with its bargaining units and is at an impasse with its two largest units.

The school board will hold a budget workshop next Tuesday, March 27, and then adopt a budget proposal on April 3. Voters will have their say on May 15.

The bulk of complaints on Tuesday centered on changes for the middle school, where the day would go from nine periods to eight and the tutorial period would be eliminated, for a savings of $210,000.

Seven Farnsworth Middle School teachers from different disciplines gave a carefully orchestrated presentation on the value of the current system. Eighth-grade science teacher Todd Hilgendorff noted Farnsworth is one of 25 schools in the state to have been named an Essential Elements School to Watch, (For the full story, go online to HYPERLINK "http://www.AltamontEnterprise.com" www.AltamontEnterprise.com and look under Guilderland archives for March 15, 2012). He said concerns about the changes have not been “fully discussed.”

Eighth-grade math teacher Brenda McClaine said the change would decrease instructional time. And eighth-grade science teacher Donna Abbruzzese said there would be “loss in depth and breadth of curriculum.” She said, for example, her students, during tutorial period, create DNA jewelry from scraping their cheeks, which “provides that a-ha moment…DNA is something real and tangible and they have it.”

Seventh-grade English teacher Molly Fanning became emotional as she discussed the value of “teaming,” which she said would suffer in an eight-period day when teachers would have fewer planning periods.

Seventh-grade special-education teacher Tara Caligure said her students would suffer without an access period, which she described as “a time for students to take risks.” If kids who are already struggling with how they feel about themselves are taken out of class for extra help, she said, they will stand out more.

“This plan falls dramatically short of appropriate,” she concluded, “and it’s our students that will suffer the demoralizing consequences.”

Sixth-grade teacher Emily Mineau said that the transition to middle school is eased at Farnsworth because sixth-graders spend the bulk of their day with two teachers, then move to a four-teacher team in seventh grade. Under the proposed plan, many sixth-graders will have a three-teacher team.

Seventh-grade teacher Heather Bryer was once a student at the school and can still name her teachers there. The new plan, she said, “chips away at a child-centered approach to learning” and is more like a junior high school, without the flexibility a middle-school model requires.

She suggested people let lawmakers know “cutting support while demanding more is not sustainable.”

Also under the budget proposal, sixth-grade health class, which is not mandated by the state, would be cut. Sixth-grade health teacher Alice Klump said the class gives “scared little sixth-graders” the knowledge and strategies to “prevent them from becoming one of the statistics.” Several parents agreed.

“Gems are expensive”

“The one thing we didn’t hear were any alternatives,” Wiles told The Enterprise after Tuesday’s meeting. Her plan, she said, is “designed to preserve programs in the long run.”

With a consultant, administrators examined the shape of the school day and, in addition to reconfiguring the middle-school day, also changed the high-school day, eliminating the popular advisory period.

Objections to the high school changes were heard at earlier community forums but have largely subsided, Wiles said. ”Scheduling at the high school is going well,” she said. “Students are getting the eighth classes they want and class sizes are more balanced.”

Wiles said of the current schedule at Farnsworth, “The nine-period day is a gem. But gems are expensive….The bottom line is, we still need to find reductions at the middle level.”

Wiles reiterated, “No one is arguing the nine-period day is bad…It’s very, very expensive. Neighboring districts have abandoned it or are about to.”

She went on, “You don’t hear us reducing art or music or co-curriculars or interscholastic sports or foreign languages, or electives. All of our neighbors are eliminating those. We’re looking at using time differently.”

Referring to some of the problems raised by speakers at Tuesday’s meeting, Wiles said, “I have confidence the leadership team at the middle school can come up with alternatives.”

She noted that, even if the state had a sudden economic recovery, that “school aid tends to lag behind improvements in the economy.”

Wiles concluded, “I would not propose a plan that would not appropriately address the needs of our kids.”

More objections

Other complaints centered on the elimination of the last two enrichment positions — one at the elementary level and the other at Farnsworth Middle School — for a savings of $140,000.

“Enrichment let me meet other kids and challenge myself,” said Ashley Visker, one of a half-dozen enrichment students who spoke about the worth of the programs. One of them, Layla Yousef, presented the board with a petition signed by 221 students, objecting to the cut. Earlier, another Farnsworth student, Joe Giordano, had given the board a petition with over 100 names, urging that the school’s enrichment teacher not be cut.

(To read more on the enrichment programs and objections to the proposed cuts, go online to HYPERLINK "http://www.AltamontEnterprise" www.AltamontEnterprise.com and look under Guilderland archives for March 8, 2012.)

A social worker, Mark Lane, who now works at Farnsworth but spent 13 years at Guilderland Elementary School, spoke about the value of his job — giving examples ranging from preventing a suicide to reducing student stress. Reduction of one-and-a-half social worker positions at the elementary level because of declining enrollment would save $114,000 and leave one social worker for every 624 students.

Several other speakers on Tuesday objected to cutting an elementary art teacher, which would leave some teachers with six preparations.

“Every child will have the same amount of time and expertise,” Wiles had said earlier about the cut. Currently, art teachers have 200 minutes of direct instructional time with students, she said. “This will put them at 240 while classroom teachers have 300 minutes of instruction,” said Wiles.

Albert Cartagenes, a senior at Guilderland High School, showed the board art he had created in fifth grade that inspired his current work, leading him to go to college to study architecture.

“Art teaches life lessons,” he said. “It allows kids to take risks… to understand sometimes they are going to fail, but you can get out of that.”

A half-dozen students objected to favorite teachers being let go because they were the last hired. In February, when the mother of a Farnsworth student, Marie Irving, had passionately objected to a caring teacher being cut, she stressed the importance of empathy in reaching students like her son.

“Learning occurs with a trusting relationship,” Wiles told The Enterprise at the time. “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.

Student Kyle Levy spoke along with three other students about the worth of middle-school social studies teacher Kylie McPherson.

“Every day, we’re excited to walk into social studies class,” he said, presenting the board with a petition signed by 140 students, asking that she not be let go.

“They all know her and love her,” said student Mohona Sengupta. “She is one of those teachers that doesn’t just teach what we need to know for the final.”

One speaker, Ed Glenning, commended the model for funding freshmen sports. Two years ago, after sports boosters packed the board’s meeting hall to object to cutting most freshman sports, a group was formed to raise the funds from the community. This year, that group, Friends of Guilderland Athletics, raised half the funds for freshman sports and the budget covered the rest.

“We have a model that works,” said Glenning. “The community has come out…Each year, they walk the walk, and put money out. We’d like to see that continue.”

— By Melissa Hale-Spencer

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