By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND — Superintendent Marie Wiles has proposed a $90.8 million school-district budget for next year, increasing spending 1.73 percent over this year and cutting 31 jobs.
The proposed job cuts come on the heels of 120 posts lost over the last three years as Guilderland, like districts across the state, has grappled with stagnant aid and assessments; rising health-care and pension costs; and, as of last year, a state-set cap on the local property-tax levy.
Wiles called building the budget a “grand balancing act” between “our mission” and “the money.”
Board President Colleen O’Connell said, “I think the budget, painful as parts of it are, is very well crafted.”
Like other board members, she said she appreciated the “transparency” with which it was discussed and the way administrators listened to the board and community.
“I don’t think anyone can say these opinions were made arbitrarily,” said O’Connell.
Last Thursday’s presentation, to about two score people, followed a series of community forums. School leaders had been asked to come up with 5-percent across-the-board cuts — about $400,000 more than needed to close a $2.1 million revenue gap. Board members, students, teachers, and parents had reacted to the proposal, shaping Wiles’s budget.
Her spending plan does not pierce the state-set levy cap, which would require 60 percent of the popular vote on May 23, rather than a simple majority of 50 percent. However, Wiles said the district’s challenge would be to explain to the public why the levy increase is 3.52 percent rather than the much-touted 2 percent.
“It has to be our educational crusade to help people understand 2 percent is really 3.52 percent,” said Wiles.
The levy limit is set by the state’s eight-step formula. For Guilderland, taking into account library debt, tax-base growth, payments in lieu of taxes, and capital expenditures, that comes to $65,597,963.
The superintendent’s budget is just $43 under that limit.
So, in the weeks ahead, before the board adopts its proposal on April 9, anything it adds to the budget means something of equal worth must be subtracted to stay under the cap — unless the state legislature comes up with more aid than the governor has proposed and that isn’t cancelled out by any federal cuts from sequestration.
“We’re not convinced yet this district is willing to support by 60 percent,” said Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders, noting, if a budget that went over the state-set cap didn’t meet the 60-percent threshold for voter approval, the law would permit no tax increase.
Last May’s budget approval for Guilderland was the highest percentage — just over 70 — in two decades. The three previous years, the approval percentage had been in the 50s; prior to the recession, the percentage had been in the 60s.
“Even though it is painful to make reductions,” Sanders said, “the vast majority of the proposed reductions are a result of declining enrollment, fewer sections, reduced levels of student need, or operational efficiencies. Now is not the time to ask our community to pay more,” he said.
At Tuesday’s school board meeting, board member Allan Simpson said that one of the things he’d like to focus on in the weeks ahead is the 3.52-percent levy increase, stating that times have changed since Guilderland board members felt a budget with a tax-rate increase under 4 percent could pass. He suggested staying “within the spirit of the law,” keeping the levy increase under 2 percent.
“We’ll disadvantage ourselves in future years,” O’Connell responded, explaining that each year’s levy increase is based on the previous year’s taxes.
Sanders said that the exclusions allowed in the state’s eight-step formula recognize those costs, mostly related to debt, such as borrowing for construction or buses, that “aren’t fully in our control.”
He also said, “Ninety-seven percent of our tax levy is subject to the 2 percent. Three percent is not.”
“If you don’t go out for the maximum,” said O’Connell, you’re leaving money on the table…You’ll have to cut even more into the program.”
Simpson said, “You still need to be able to defend and understand the 3.52 percent.”
“I think people in this community are very smart and supportive of the schools,” O’Connell responded.
Board member Judy Slack pointed out that the proposed spending increase is under 2 percent at 1.73 percent. “The tax increase is these other outside influences,” she said.
Wiles, in presenting her budget last Thursday, said a guiding principle was to consider the impact on children first and to direct resources to meet the most significant student needs, preserving educational opportunities wherever possible.
An effort was made, she said, to strike a balance in cuts across the three levels — elementary, middle, and high school — and across job classifications while paying attention, too, to areas that had seen reductions in recent years.
Wiles said that 48 percent of the reduction amounts were district-wide, 20 percent were at the high school, 17 percent were at the middle school, and 15 percent were at the district’s five elementary schools.
The most jobs — 11.35 — would be lost by teachers; this is 2.6 percent of the 446 teachers currently employed by the district. Teaching assistants would lose nine jobs, which is 6.2 percent; administrators would lose 1.6 jobs, or 5.8 percent; and other support staff would lose 9.5 jobs, or 3.6 percent.
“There is no perfect data that has the magic answer,” Wiles said. “We listen to the community…to gauge what you value.”
Wiles presented a chart showing that, except for employees’ benefits — with an increase of over 14 percent to $24.2 million — all other major categories are decreasing. Professional salaries are down half a percent to $33.2 million, and support-staff salaries are down 2.6 percent to $12.4 million.
The district currently has 4,926 students and 931 employees, about one-third of them part-time workers.
Typical of school budgets, salaries and benefits make up close to 70 percent of Guilderland’s costs. The state-run pension systems account for much of the increase in benefit costs.
“This is still preliminary,” Wiles said of her proposal, noting there are “significant unknowns,” such as the amount of state aid, the costs of as-yet-unsettled employment contracts, and the effects of federal sequestration.
The superintendent’s budget relies on the governor’s figures for state aid, at $20.6 million, about a half-million dollars less than this year. The budget uses $2.3 million from its fund balance and appropriated reserves, $400,000 less than this year as Sanders cautions reserves might be needed for the long haul.
“There is no end in sight,” said Wiles. “We need to preserve our resources as best we can…Change is hard, especially when we have less.”
Reductions and reasons
Using lists presented to the public at a Feb. 5 forum, Wiles went through the proposed cuts made in six areas, giving reasons for each. Wiles’s budget enacts about $2 million of the $2.4 million reductions considered on the list.
At the elementary level, the enrichment post will be cut, saving $72,000. Currently one teacher, whom Wiles said does a “phenomenal” job, serves fourth- and fifth-graders in all five elementary schools; she is at each school one day a week. The program had been reduced previously and Wiles said, “It’s just simply not enough to be viable anymore.”
Because of early intervention, fewer teaching assistants are needed so about $92,000 will be saved there. And, because of declining enrollment, hours for cafeteria monitors and a nursing clerk can be cut to save another $15,000, Wiles said.
Wiles said the community was heard on the need to keep the eight kindergarten teaching assistants at a cost of $232,200. The current model, she said, is “highly successful,” but, she also noted, “I can’t guarantee we can sustain this forever.”
At Farnsworth Middle School, Wiles proposes reducing the administration from three house principals to two, for a savings of $125,000, and also cutting a secretary’s job to save $44,900. The current Farnsworth principal, Mary Summermatter, is retiring, and enrollment next year is expected to be 1,107.
Wiles’s plan also calls for cutting the middle-school enrichment post to save $72,000, a recommendation she made last year. Outcry from enrichment students and their parents, however, led to keeping that post this year.
Because of less student need, Wiles recommended cutting one reading teacher to save $72,000. And, due to declining enrollment, her plan cuts one section of seventh-grade special areas to save $20,600.
At the high school, Wiles’s plan returns an “X” section, which creatively combines English and social studies, to each of three grades for a cost of $43,200. The new contract with the teachers’ union increases, starting next year, the number of classes taught by English teachers from four to five, for a savings of $259,200, so, adding back the three sections of “X” classes, the district calculates a savings of $216,000 over this year.
To save about $26,000, she proposed reductions in science and math sections that serve the fewest students, and said their needs could be met other ways.
Posts for two hall monitors would be cut to save $46,800, which Wiles said is workable because of added training and a new plan to deploy monitors.
Cutting a half-time copy-room post would save $21,280, and changing the summer-school schedule would save $18,340.
Reductions to art and music include cutting one section of ceramics to save $5,150; eliminating a section of advanced art to save $10,300; due to declining enrollment, reducing a section of seventh-grade art and music to save $2,575 each; reducing staff for high school music lessons to save $25,750; and eliminating music equipment purchases and reducing supplies to save $22,260.
Wiles said high school students would still be given instrumental music lessons but the number of students in the group lessons would increase.
For athletics, due to decreasing enrollment, physical education sections for elementary and middle school would be cut, saving about $28,000. The junior varsity golf team would be eliminated to save $4,122. Assistant coaching positions in wrestling, boys’ and girls’ junior-varsity lacrosse, boys’ and girls’ varsity soccer, and gymnastics would be cut, saving $22,522.
After the gymnastics team members, parents, coaches, and supporters pled their case before the school board, that team was not cut. Wiles termed it “a compromise” since the gymnasts’ assistant coach would be cut.
“The good news is, we keep the programs. The bad news is, there are fewer adults to help,” said Wiles, suggesting that perhaps booster clubs or the Friends of Guilderland Athletics might “pitch in.”
FOGA was formed in the wake of budget cuts several years ago, when it was proposed that freshmen sports be eliminated. FOGA raises funds from the community to pay half the cost of freshman sports; the other half is covered by the budget.
Under World Languages, middle school sections of German and Spanish would be cut, due to a decline in interest, saving about $31,000. Also due to fewer student requests, two sections for third-year Spanish would be cut at the high school, saving $20,600.
A section of Italian for sixth-graders would be added at no cost, and for $54,000, a three-quarters post would be added to help students from foreign countries who are struggling to read English.
In special education, teaching cuts saving about $92,000 would be made because of students moving from elementary schools to Farnsworth. Also, due to a declining need for one-on-one assistants, 5.6 posts would be cut, saving $162,400. Changing student needs for BOCES services would save $270,560.
For maintenance and transportation, one-and-a-half custodial posts would be cut, saving about $63,000. Assignments would be redistributed and outside groups may need to pay for custodial services on Saturdays, Wiles said.
A mail courier wouldn’t be used in the summer, saving $8,350.
Three bus routes were cut this year, realizing a savings of $102,330 for the three jobs. Similarly, a mechanics’ post, for $54,600, is vacant, and current staff members are meeting the demands.
Competitive bidding and energy efficiency efforts have saved $182,000; using free Google Apps for Education saves $32,070; and discontinuing StarBase server support saves $14,590 as the district has switched to SchoolTool, a web-based student administration system.
Additional administrative reductions include saving $20,600 by reducing the coordinator for the elementary programs post, and saving $10,300 by reducing the instructional administrator for art post.
“Written in Play-Doh”
“This is a fluid document,” said President O’Connell at the close of last Thursday’s two-and-a-quarter-hour session. She encouraged people to speak out about their budget priorities at the board meetings on March 5, 19, and 26, and said the board and the administration would listen.
She concluded of the budget, “It’s not written in stone, more like written in Play-Doh or sand.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, five people stood before the microphone to tell the board their thoughts on the proposed budget.
Jeff Cohen, who is president of the booster club for girls’ soccer, argued for keeping the assistant coaches.
“Less supervision is less safe,” he said.
He noted that the proposed cut would affect 165 students, the highest number of any cut, to save $22,522.
Cohen recommended restoring those posts first if more aid comes in or using reserves or excess funds from this year’s budget.
He said that having volunteers do the work of professional coaches would be like having volunteers teach high-school chemistry. He also said that booster clubs are already stretched thin supporting freshman sports.
Jim Lozano, a Guilderland parent, said, “Basically, we are just cutting” and urged “fundamental changes,” without specifying them.
“A business would focus on adapting…in order to reduce expenses,” he said, concluding, “We need to change the way we play the game.”
Finally, a parent spoke in favor of teaching Italian while two middle-school teachers were opposed to adding the section of Italian for sixth-graders at no cost.
Anna Russo, who works at Guilderland’s town hall, said many businesses in Guilderland are Italian. “The culture is here,” she said.
Russo also read from a letter written by her son, a Guilderland graduate now a student at the Albany College of Pharmacy, stating that his Italian language studies had helped him establish a connection between the Albany college and a university in Italy, and also helped him communicate with laboratories outside of the country.
“My son learned the language and the culture here…We have very proud people,” said Russo.
Frances Gorka and Lisa Osterhoudt, both Farnsworth teachers of foreign languages, opposed the proposal.
“Not only will there be costs, there will be cuts,” said Gorka, stating she spoke on behalf of the department.
She said teachers would be split between buildings and teachers of six, seven, or eight years may be cut.
“The quality of education will be affected,” Gorka said. “We respectfully ask that you hold off.”
At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, board member Christine Hayes asked why students were surveyed now with Italian as an option.
Wiles responded that, to research the question, the three languages currently offered — Spanish, French, and German — were included as well as Italian and Mandarin Chinese.
She noted there is a teacher certified to teach Italian currently on the staff, and said the district is trying to serve the community.
Wiles also said she had looked at how costs would play out and, except for two-tenths of a post for a pair of years in four more years, there would be no additional costs.
“It’s something the community has asked us to do,” said board member Barbara Fraterrigo who, like Gloria Towle-Hilt, is on vacation out of state and participated in the board meeting through a computer hook-up.
She pointed out that, several years ago, about 800 people had signed a petition in support of teaching Italian.
“I wonder why there is such resistance,” Fraterrigo said. “I don’t see how it denigrates the rest of the department.”