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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 5, 2012

FMS to keep 9-period day
GCSD board proposes $89M budget
By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — The vote was unanimous but the mood was somber Tuesday night as the nine members of the school board here adopted an $89 million budget proposal for next year.

“None of us like this budget,” said board member Richard Weisz. “We’re being asked to make changes we don’t want to make.”

Guilderland, like districts across the state, is faced with a tax-levy cap, stagnant state aid, and increased health and pension costs. The district had to close a $2.6 million gap to meet the new state-set cap.

The public will vote on the spending plan, which would raise the tax rate 2.2 percent, on May 15. Because the tax levy stays under the state-set levy limit, a simple majority of more than 50 percent is needed to pass the budget.

Tuesday’s school-board vote followed last week’s revelation that a centerpiece of the superintendent’s March 1 budget proposal — changing the middle-school day from nine periods to eight, sacrificing the tutorial period to save $210,000 — may require negotiations with the teachers’ union.

A Guilderland parent, Jeff Cohen, read to the school board from last week’s Enterprise, expressing his anger at remarks made by Maceo Dubose, the president of the Guilderland Teachers’ Association, who had said he didn’t know why the administration hadn’t been aware of the nine-period requirement and, when asked what trade-offs the union would be willing to make, said that the budget is developed by administrators.

Cohen cited a quote often attributed to American revolutionary Thomas Paine: “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” Cohen went on, “The GTA leadership has to do one of those three things.”

No one wants more lay-offs, Cohen said, blaming union leadership and not the rank and file. About 100 jobs have been cut in the last two years, and roughly another 29 will be cut under next year’s plan. (This includes 15.7 teachers, 7.4 teaching assistants, 4.6 support staff, and 1.6 administrators.)

Dubose had addressed the board just before Cohen, stating, “We understand the economic situation in New York State.” He noted that the GTA wasn’t responsible for the recession, nor was the school board. “It was thrust upon us,” said Dubose.

Through the years of prosperity, GTA leaders had prided themselves in working collaboratively with the district on contracts. After negotiating since last January on a contract that expired in June, the district declared an impasse in November.

“Both are committed to a fair agreement,” said Dubose of the district and the GTA.

He also talked about how hard teachers work, often putting in hours before and after the school day. “We are professionals and we care about our students,” said Dubose, who works as a middle-school counselor.

To make up for the savings lost in keeping the nine-period day, the board looked at three options presented by the administration and agreed to the recommended option, which will increase class size by one or two students, pushing the upper range to 29 or 30 students. The eight-period plan would have reduced class size.

The adopted plan will cut five jobs — three of them core teachers and the other two made up of bits and pieces of different subjects. Those cuts, at $70,000 a post, save $350,000.

That savings is $140,000 more than the $210,000 that would have been saved by moving to the eight-period day. The difference will be spent on two enrichment teachers — one at the middle school and the other to serve the five elementary schools. Superintendent Marie Wiles recommended a different model than the current one at the elementary schools —where the teacher, who is retiring, had spent one day each week at the five schools. Wiles would prefer a coordinator role where parents and cultural institutions are brought in for programs.

The board had strongly recommended keeping the two enrichment teachers after hearing for weeks from parents and students protesting the cuts.

Two Farnsworth Middle School teachers who were among many who spoke out against changing to an eight-period day, and have attended the budget sessions since, said after Tuesday’s meeting that they were pleased with the outcome.

Eighth-grade science teacher Todd Hilgendorff said of the agreed-upon plan, “I think it’s what’s best for middle-school students.” Asked if he was worried about large class sizes that the eight-period day would have reduced, he said, “Our class sizes now are 28. The tutorial gives us a chance to re-teach to the kids who need it.”

Eighth-grade math teacher Brenda McClaine agreed. She said the tutorial period allows teachers to “individualize” their teaching, and that the student-teacher contact time is greater with the nine-period model.

The school board had been divided, even before the contract issue was raised, about moving to an eight-period day. Four of the seven members present at last week’s board meeting wanted Wiles to pursue the eight-period plan.

Wiles said Tuesday that she had spoken with Dubose who said Farnsworth teachers had agreed the nine-period day is better for students and believe it is part of the contract.

“I continue to believe a transition to the eight-period day…positions us better for the long term,” said Wiles. “The tax cap isn’t going away…state aid is flat.”

She also said, “My worry is we’ll be in a position a year from now that will be far more dire and we’ll have less flexibility to maintain our program.”

Later in the meeting, board member Barbara Fraterrigo said, “If we don’t challenge the union this year, it will go on ad infintum and we’ll keep laying off more and more….The most painless way is the way you proposed,” she told Wiles of the eight-period day. “If, as they argue, it’s in the contract…it’s only an act of God that gets it out of the contract.”

“Core-subject classroom teachers at this level,” the contract says in a section on the middle-school schedule, “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.”

Fraterrigo said the board was stuck and concluded, “Hopefully, reality will come to the fore.”

“Mr. Dubose offered to continue to talk with us,” Wiles responded, stating she would take him up on the offer.

By the numbers

Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders went over other changes in the proposed $89,259,860 spending plan, which represents a .34-percent increase in spending over this year.

Revenue is up by $326,885. This is despite a $26,250 loss for a classroom rental to the Board of Cooperative Educational Services since BOCES can’t commit to renting the room.

More than half of the increase — $180,345 — is from a Payment in Lieu of Taxes. The PILOT program money is from the Beverwyck facility for elderly residents and is new this year, Sanders told The Enterprise.

The other big addition is $146,540 more in state aid. This brings Guilderland’s state-aid total to just over $21 million.

Noting publicity about the increase in state aid to schools, Weisz calculated Guilderland’s aid for next year, figuring in the cut from the end of the federal Educational Job Funds, is still down about $1 million.

“We’re being forced to spend our reserves,” said Weisz later in the meeting, as the board discussed its required 2012-13 Property Tax Report Card. Weisz noted that the district has been dropping about $2 million a year in reserves.

Sanders said this was “to stave off reductions, noting, “Some schools have spent all of their reserves.”

Weisz positioned his left hand above his shoulder to indicate the high costs of paying teachers because, he said, of the Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law, which guarantees step raises even if the teachers’ contract has expired. Weisz positioned his right hand a foot lower, to indicate the level the tax cap places on revenues.

“All those people will lose their jobs,” he said, gesturing to the space between his hands. “Class size will be 50.”

Changes on the expenditure side, in addition to those outlined last week (for the full story, go online to HYPERLINK "http://www.AltamontEnterprise" www.AltamontEnterprise and look under Guilderland archives for March 29, 2012), include adding two more posts to be used wherever they are needed.

Several board members echoed concerns raised by parents and staff members about social-worker cuts. Wiles explained how the hours for social workers were arrived at based on their accounts of how they spend their time paired with an analysis of student needs.

If needs aren’t being met, part of the two added posts could be used for social work, she said. They could also be used to handle increases in enrollment.

Wiles said she felt comfortable with a total now of four floating posts to be filled as needed.

The $89 million budget proposal is $133,764 under the tax levy limit of $63.5 million.

“If we are under the limit, that money can be carried forward to next year,” said Sanders. “That money doesn’t go away…That will help boost your tax-levy limit next year.”

Yesterday, Sanders calculated for The Enterprise estimates of tax rates for 2012-13 if the proposed budget were adopted by voters on May 15.

Guilderland residents would pay an estimated $21.14 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. The school district lies in parts of three other towns as well.

Bethlehem residents would pay an estimated $18.80 per $1,000; New Scotland residents would pay $19, and residents of Knox, where town-wide property revaluation hasn’t been done in years, would pay $31.98 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

Leaders’ remarks

Vice President Gloria Towle-Hilt, a retired middle school teacher, concluded she was happy with the nine-period day.

But, she went on to say she was disappointed that mention of an agreement about the nine-period day hadn’t come out until the last minute. “Everyone here has worked very hard to be transparent,” she said, saying there should have been no surprises. “This was a surprise,” said Towle-Hilt.

Unlike other board members, though, she said she is an optimist. “I think we’ll see mandate relief,” she said. Towle-Hilt continued, referring to the board’s president, Colleen O’Connell, “Colleen says I must have a fever.”

O’Connell made the concluding remarks before the board voted unanimously on the budget proposal.

“I support the budget,” she said. “I think it preserves a lot of the programs,” she went on, naming music, all of the art classes, and plays at the middle and high schools. She said the proposed budget maintains core classes and special classes as well as keeping sports teams in tact.

“It’s unfortunate that there are lay-offs,” O’Connell said. Her one disappointment, she said, is not moving to an eight-period day. Tutorial, said O’Connell, is not a good use of taxpayer money.

“I hope we can move forward in some fashion with the union,” said O’Connell

She thanked community members for their participation in budget forums, and praised students for their courage in speaking to the board.

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