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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 29, 2012

Last-minute budget scramble
Will teachers agree to an eight-period day at Farnsworth?

GUILDERLAND — A foundation of the superintendent’s budget — reshaping the school day to save money so as not to cut programs — faltered this week.

Part of Marie Wiles’s $89 million proposal for next year was to restructure the middle-school day from nine to eight periods, which would sacrifice the tutorial period and save $210,000.

At last Tuesday’s school board meeting, middle school teachers had strenuously objected to the proposed schedule change.

On Friday, Maceo Dubose, the president of the Guilderland Teachers’ Association, which is currently at an impasse in contract negotiations with the district, told Wiles about memorandums of agreement that may prevent the district from moving to an eight-period day, she said.

Wiles said a July 19, 2008 memorandum defined the work done during the collaboration period of the nine-period day, and stated that a new memorandum would be signed every year. On May 1, 2009, an “additional MOA-like document” was signed dissolving the yearly requirement, Wiles said.

The memorandums were never discussed in public by the board; they were signed by Wiles’s predecessor, John McGuire. Wiles said the memorandums need not have gone through the board if there was no direct financial impact.

Long-time board member Barbara Fraterrigo expressed outrage that the board had never been informed of the memorandums.

Dubose told The Enterprise yesterday that the nine-period day is part of the teachers’ contract, under the section on the middle-school schedule.

“Core-subject classroom teachers at this level,” the contract says, “are assigned during a nine period day the following: five instructional classes (including tutorial), a team planning period, a personal planning period, a non-instructional student supervision period and an activity period.”

The contract continues, “Other teachers at this level may be assigned, unless otherwise agreed by the teacher, no more than six assignments during a nine period day, five of which may be instructional.”

Asked why the issue hadn’t been raised over the months of discussion about scheduling, until just before the budget was to be adopted, Dubose said, “I can’t speak as to why they wouldn’t be aware of it….It’s something that should have been negotiated with us…This is a discussion that probably should have taken place a long time ago.”

He noted that the teachers’ union, with nearly 500 members, had been negotiating with the district since January 2011. The contract expired last June.

“We recognize the economic times we’re all facing,” said Dubose. “It has to be fair.”

Wiles called the discovery of the memorandums “an 11th-hour wrinkle to our process.”

She told the school board, which held a special meeting on Tuesday to finalize the budget before adopting it next week, “If we need to pursue a nine-period day…we’ll need to find those savings someplace else.” She also noted that the expensive part of the current system is that teaching teams are made up of four people rather than five.

Board President Colleen O’Connell polled the seven board members present on Tuesday to see if they wanted to purse the eight-period day. The board was divided.

Allan Simpson, Emilio Genzano, and Fraterrigo supported moving to an eight-period day, although Simpson raised a practical concern. “We can’t negotiate a union contract for pay,” he said. “How can we negotiate this? It pretty much forces us,” he said.

Rose Levy, Gloria Towle-Hilt, and Richard Weisz favored keeping the nine-period day.

“The day is jammed for a kid…There’s no wiggle room,” said Towle-Hilt, a retired Farnsworth Middle School teacher, noting lunch period is the only free time without the advisory period.

“To me, the real question is: Can Farnsworth look like Farnsworth…if we move to an eight-period day and cut enrichment?” said Weisz, stating he was “incredibly sad” that the district was “abandoning the hope for excellence.”

What made him “even sadder,” Weisz said, is that that the teachers, as a group, didn’t value the Farnsworth model enough that, as a union, they wouldn’t come up with a way to save it. He lamented that teachers were not willing to “share the pain with the community,” even if it meant giving up some of their rights.

“The governor says our job is to negotiate harder…I don’t know any way of negotiating harder,” said Weisz. He also said, “I can see the board never giving a raise…It would be Triborough forever,” he said, referring to the amendment to the Taylor Law that allows teachers to continue to get step increases based on their last contract.

“It’s a sad way for me to end,” concluded Weisz, who is retiring after 12 years on the board.

O’Connell noted that, to keep the nine-period day and reinstate the enrichment teacher for $70,000, as Weisz wanted, a total of $280,000 would have to be made up.

Weisz responded that classes could have 35 students. “If teachers as a unit can’t come up with a way…then that’s what they get,” he said of large classes. Weisz also said of sticking with the eight-period proposal despite the memorandums of agreement, “If they want to bring an injunction, let ’em. Anything to get the teachers to tell us what they want.”

With the board divided, at 3 to 3, O’Connell said, “I’d like to pursue the eight-period day.” She said the nine-period day is “wonderful and very expensive” while the eight-period day is “educationally sound” and “just costs less money.”

O’Connell also disagreed with Weisz, who had said, since the high school day is to be restructured next year without its popular advisory period, it would be best to see how that works before “we give it up at the middle school.”

“It’s comparing apples and oranges,” said O’Connell.

After the meeting, Wiles told The Enterprise that, based on the board’s discussion, she would ask the teachers’ union if it would consider the eight-period day.

“It’s my hope our colleagues will help us come to a good resolution,” said Wiles.

If the GTA doesn’t agree, The Enterprise asked Wiles if she would force the issue, perhaps resulting in an injunction as Weisz had suggested. “That would be a board decision,” she said.

The board is set to adopt a spending plan on Tuesday, April 3.

Responding through The Enterprise to Weisz’s suggestion, made in frustration, that classes could have 35 students, Dubose said, “Mr. Weisz knows larger numbers aren’t what’s best for students. As educators, we want to do what’s best for students.”

Asked yesterday what trade-offs the teachers’ union would be willing to make in order to keep the budget under the state-set levy limit, Dubose said, “The budget is developed by the district office and administrators…They don’t come to the GTA when they create the budget.”

He concluded, “The GTA has met with the district for over a year to try to come to some compromise.”

Budget update

The governor announced Tuesday that a state budget has been agreed upon; Guilderland administrators hope to have figures on state aid by the end of this week.

Guilderland’s budget session on Tuesday began with an overview from Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders.

The superintendent’s $89 million proposal stays within the state’s new tax-levy limit, requiring a majority vote on May 15. (For an overview of the budget proposal, go online to HYPERLINK "http://www.AltamontEnterprise.com" www.AltamontEnterprise.com and look under Guilderland archives for March 8, 2012.)

Changes from the March 1 budget include an additional $84,000 in health-insurance costs because of “a few individuals” on expensive prescription drugs, said Sanders. And, because the position for an assistant director of athletics, health, and physical education is being cut, three new stipends of $3,150 each are being added — for two athletic faculty managers and for an athletic event coordinator. A contracted post for physical therapy services is being added for $4,160, and new software for Medicaid will cost $2,820.

On the revenue side, $26,250 has been added because the Board of Cooperative Educational Services wants to rent another classroom at Pine Bush Elementary School.

The revised budget totals $89,216,330 and would have a levy of $63,622,840 — $58,000 shy of the state-set limit.

The board was presented with a list of four possible restorations to the budget — adding two teachers, for $140,000, to keep elementary class sizes within the guidelines; reinstating one-and-a-half social-worker positions, for $114,000; adding an enrichment coordinator, for $70,000, instead of the current two enrichment teachers — one at the elementary level and one at the middle school; and adding half of a teaching post, for $35,000, at the high school.

Enrichment fans

Board members agreed on Tuesday that restoring enrichment was their top priority. At several recent meetings, students; parents; and the popular middle-school enrichment teacher, Deborah Escobar, have protested the cuts and spoken of the worth of the current programs. (See related stories online under Guilderland archives at HYPERLINK "http://www.AltamontEnterprise.com" www.AltamontEnterprise.com for March 8, 2012 and march 22, 2012.)

Tuesday’s meeting opened with more endorsements for enrichment. Eighth-grader Sarah Jones said, because of the enrichment program, “I held Churchill’s, Stalins’s, and Roosevelt’s signatures in my hands.” She also created a dodecahedron from origami, and was part of a lively 40-minute philosophical debate on the color of blue.

“Others should have the chance to be as fortunate as I,” Jones concluded.

Another eighth-grader, Abby Bemis, noted that most of her classes at Farnsworth were heterogeneous, with students of different abilities. “My classes didn’t challenge me enough,” she said. The enrichment program made her feel like going to school was worthwhile.

Sixth-grader Jonah Goldstein said his recent second-place finish in a regional History Day competition was a direct result of the enrichment program. He noted that Guilderland students entered 25 projects and won 18 awards. (See related story.)

He also noted that Escobar mentored the high school students on her own time.

Finally, David and Debra Picker spoke from the perspective of parents whose now-grown children had been shaped by Guilderland’s enrichment programs. Both of their children graduated from Yale University.

Their 29-year-old son, Joshua, is graduating from Columbia Law School and will clerk for a federal judge. Their 24-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, is a mezzo-soprano, working with Metropolitan Opera singers.

“Gifted and talented students are encouraged to dream and believe they…can make a difference,” said David Picker, a former school board member. “Our children refined who they were intellectually,” he said, through the enrichment programs. “They found a home…They found a future, too.”

The proposal the board was presented with was for an “enrichment coordinator” who, Wiles said, would deliver direct instruction, reach out to local colleges and cultural entities, and train other teachers.

Alluding to Escobar, she said, “It came out loudly and clearly, we have a talented person.”

The new job would involve direct instruction for the “big programs” at the middle school, Wiles said, as well as also providing enrichment at the five elementary schools.

Several board members advocated restoring both enrichment posts.

“I would put the two enrichment teachers back ahead of class size,” said Weisz of the $140,000 listed for two elementary teachers.

“I’d put it ahead of the social workers,” said Simpson, noting that the original proposal for number of social workers was “data-driven.”

“If you don’t have the data to put it back in, it doesn’t go back in,” he said.

Ultimately, all the board members agreed that, if the funding were available, the top priority for restoration would be the two enrichment posts.

— By Melissa Hale-Spencer

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