By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND — Varsity gymnasts — more than a dozen girls wearing red shirts — stood before the school board Tuesday night to make a heartfelt plea: Don’t cut our team.
“Our girls consistently place second at sectionals,” said the team’s long-time coach, Brenda Goodknight. “I hope tomorrow we’re able to win.” She added that it is not the ideal preparation to come to a board meeting the night before the sectional championship to beg to save the team.
“Good luck tomorrow,” said the school board president as the girls stepped away from the microphone — a long red line — and returned to their seats.
The gymnastics team is one of more than 70 items on a list of possible cuts for next year. School leaders were 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 — to present last week for community feedback.
About 50 people came to Tuesday’s school board meeting as speakers made their views known. The tone was solemn but not hostile as each speaker pled his or her case. At the close of the three-hour meeting, in an impromptu session not on the agenda, board members responded with their own budget priorities. At the end, only two people remained in the gallery.
The superintendent, Marie Wiles, will present her budget on Feb. 28. The board then must adopt a final spending proposal for the 2013-14 school year before the budget goes to public vote on May 21.
Cutting the gymnastics team would save $11,147 and only four Suburban Council schools still have varsity gymnastics teams, participants at last week’s budget forum were told. (To learn more, read an in-depth Feb. 7, 2013 story — “GCSD to citizens: ‘What should we cut?’” — online at www.AltamontEnterprise.com, which lists the proposed cuts and the rationale behind them.)
The gymnasts told the school board Tuesday of the opportunities the sport had given them, not just for competition but for everything from fitting into high school to pursuing college goals. Sidney Snyder told of how volunteering to teach at gymnastics camp led to her getting a job. Several mentioned their competition at the state level.
Last year, Guilderland’s team ranked fifth in the state.
There is no modified or junior-varsity gymnastics team at Guilderland, and several of the athletes talked about mentoring younger team members.
Steve Wider, a 2004 Guilderland graduate who serves as assistant coach, told of how the girls set up 100 pounds of equipment before each practice and endure quarter-sized blisters.
“Imagine the courage it takes to be upside down 10 feet in the air,” he said. “Every day, these girls fall over and over again but they always pick themselves up and get it right.”
Coach Goodknight said she had been on Guilderland’s gymnastics team in the 1980s and went on to be captain of the team at the University of Albany, where she earned her bachelor’s degree.
She noted that the team’s booster club had purchased equipment used by the town of Guilderland’s recreational program.
“We are not a struggling program,” Goodknight told the board, noting she has to make cuts every year to keep the team at 16 athletes.
Finally, Lori McCutcheon, the mother of one of the gymnasts, noted how students at Westmere Elementary, where she worked as a substitute teacher, were excited to use the gymnasts’ equipment. The effect of the team goes “beyond those on the roster,” said McCutcheon.
“The older girls take the younger under their wing,” she said, noting the gymnasts are positive role models for young female athletes.
She said that her seventh-grade daughter had learned to set both personal and team goals and had gained athletic skills and confidence by being on the team.
“Please do not cut this wonderful sports program for girls,” McCutcheon concluded. “It’s a legacy and a Guilderland tradition.”
At the end of the night, several of the board members said they supported keeping the gymnastics team. Board President Colleen O’Connell said she would e-mail information to the board members, once she hears back from Athletic Director Regan Johnson, on how much of his recommendation was based on the fact only four Suburban Council gymnastic teams remain.
Views on other proposals
Monica Kounter and Elizabeth Bunday urged the board not to outsource physical therapy. At the close of the meeting, the board’s vice president, Gloria Towle-Hilt, said that she thought the “personal relationships” that physical therapists on the staff build with students is important for their progress and that would be lost with outsourcing.
Rose Levy said the change “wouldn’t be much of a savings.” Contracting for physical therapy services would save about $9,000.
Two Westmere kindergarten teachers, Jennifer Krell and Amy McFarren, spoke out against the recommendation to cut eight kindergarten teaching assistants to save $232,200 next year. “Peer interactions are not always safe or appropriate,” said Krell, noting that one person can’t adequately oversee 22 or more kindergarten students.
McFarren calculated that the reduction would total 36,000 lost minutes of help that students need to thrive.
Five board members — Towle-Hilt, Levy, Barbara Fraterrigo, Christine Hayes, and Judy Slack — urged keeping current number of kindergarten teaching assistants.
Student Paul Pernacchia spoke with delight that he might be able to study Italian next year. He noted that 50 percent of New York’s population — including his father — has Italian heritage. After learning some basic phrases from his father, he tried teaching himself, which was difficult, he said.
“When I heard they were to offer Italian in the high school, I was pumped,” said Pernacchia.
Two board members were less enthused. O’Connell and Allan Simpson, while not opposed to Italian, worried about starting a new program. In recent years, Guilderland has offered French, Spanish, and German.
When students were polled on their interests, about 60 wanted to study Italian. One section is planned, for which students will be chosen by lottery, said Wiles. Since a current teacher is certified to teach Italian, there would be no added costs for next year.
Fraterrigo said she was “delighted” that Italian would be offered. She recalled, years earlier, when the board received a petition with 700 signatures, requesting Italian be taught.
Fraterrigo, vacationing out of town, participated in the meeting through a computer hook-up. She initiated the board members’ sharing their thoughts on the proposed cuts so that the superintendent would have “a feel from us.”
Wiles said that, as in previous budgets, each item would be weighed to see which is “least damaging” to students. Guilderland, faced with stagnant aid and increasing costs as well as a tax-levy cap last year, has cut about 120 jobs in the last three years.
“There is no magic to it,” said Wiles.
High school math teacher Mark Rudolph spoke passionately to the board about the value of the advisory period that was cut this year.
With class sizes up and teachers pulled in all directions, he said, “This year is the most difficult” in his 15-year career.
The 85-minute advisory period had been part of the high school’s block schedule. Every other day, it allowed students and teachers across the school to be free at the same time so that students could make up work, get extra help, or participate in club activities.
Without the advisory period, Rudolph said, there was no time to ask thought-provoking questions. In the shorter, after-school periods, he said, “I find myself shoveling out information,” often with only about three minutes for each student.
The “cherished” conversations are gone and he hasn’t gotten to know the strengths and weaknesses of his students, he said. Rudolph reported that students say “they feel misplaced” and both students and teachers are frustrated as student-teacher bonds are suffering.
Responding to concerns raised by Rose Levy, the board spent about an hour discussing the advisory period.
Wiles estimated that eliminating the advisory period saved roughly a million dollars. The current district budget is $89 million.
With the elimination of the advisory period, an after-school period was instituted and learning centers were set up for students to get help during study halls.
Levy said that, two weeks ago, she casually asked a teacher how it was going without the advisory period. Levy forwarded many of the e-mails she received on the subject to the other board members, saying that teachers are concerned with students’ struggling. “I didn’t feel anyone was complaining,” said Levy.
She asked if the scheduling change had helped balance class sizes, as predicted, and if it had allowed students to take more courses.
Thomas Lutsic, the high school principal, said the change did help balance class sizes by allowing more scheduling flexibility.
Aaron Sicotte, an assistant principal, said that just over 10 percent of Guilderland High School students this past semester took an eighth course. In years past he said, no one had been able to. “I imagine not a third of our students requested an eighth course,” he said.
Sicotte, echoing Rudolph’s comments, said of cutting the advisory period, “Everybody saw it as a loss. The reality is, we can’t schedule it…without a whole lot more staff.”
He also said, “The reality is we were one of very few schools in the state to have an advisory.” Yet other schools have robust clubs and students working with teachers outside of class, Sicotte said.
“The hard part for us is the transition…There’s serious mourning that’s happening in the school,” he said.
Lutsic said that the high school’s building cabinet is monitoring the situation and exploring alternatives. “We’re open to solutions. We’re open to input,” he said, calling it “a work in progress.”
Learning centers were set up in the high school so that students could get help from teachers, not necessarily their own, during study halls. The math and science learning centers are used “quite a bit,” said Lutsic, and the English and social studies centers not as much.
Levy cited an e-mail from a teacher saying just two students had come to one center all year. “Now they’re sitting there for 80 minutes doing nothing,” she said of teachers, noting time is not being used effectively.
Also, Levy noted, each teacher at a center isn’t equipped to help with every subject so, for example, a student may not be able to get help in biology at the science center if the teacher staffing the center knows only physics.
Lutsic urged “giving it more time.”
Board member Catherine Barber asked if block scheduling — with a few, long periods each day rather than many short ones — is popular among schools.
“It’s a mix,” said Lutsic, noting a schedule like Guilderland’s was most popular in the late 1990s.
Sicotte noted that, in the past four years, Guilderland High School has looked at schedules twice. “There’s no perfect high school schedule,” he said. He also said that Guilderland is “fairly unique” in offering learning centers.
“We’ve got a lot to learn,” he said, noting the cabinet is reluctant to make wholesale changes.
“It wasn’t a choice we wanted to make…If you’re used to driving a luxury car, stepping back to an economy car is difficult,” said Slack. “We have to recognize the realities of where we are…Let’s make the best of what we’ve got.”
Process and philosophy
Two of those addressing the board Tuesday night raised procedural concerns.
Kerry Dineen, a music teacher at Pine Bush Elementary School, said she was “very discouraged,” not just with the cutting but with the way cuts are being made at a “flat 5 percent.”
She said that “doesn’t create a level playing field.”
Dineen called the proposed cuts to kindergarten teaching assistants ridiculous and irresponsible and said, “As a district, we haven’t set priorities.”
Criticizing recent and proposed cuts in music, Dineen, noting research that shows the importance of music education, concluded, “If we were a data-driven school, as we claim to be, we’d be investing in music.”
At the end of the meeting, several board members talked about the importance of music. Lori Herchenhart, instructional supervisor for music, had explained during last week’s forum, that, to come up with the require 5-percent cut, she had wanted to save the teaching posts so she cut equipment, repairs, and conferences for a total savings of about $34,000.
She also proposed cutting a tenth of a post in sixth- and seventh-grade music to save $5,150, and half a post for instrumental lessons at the high school, to save $25,750.
Fraterrigo on Tuesday night commented that it is “short-sighted” to eliminate the budget to repair instruments.
Jennifer Charron praised the recent pops concert, noting such performances are free to the public. “These students are the reason we’re a top music district,” she said.
Towle-Hilt said she is concerned that music has “taken a number of hits.” She said, “It is such a shining star and affects so many kids.”
“What is really valuable in terms of our graduates and where employment is?” asked Barber. She said that math and science would give graduates more options and that the United States is “not stacking up that well” in those fields. “It seems like we’re narrowing options at high levels,” she said.
O’Connell countered that middle-school students don’t get to take accelerated courses in English and social studies like they do in math and science.
“We still need people who speak in public, who can write for websites or something more old-fashioned,” she said.
Timothy Burke addressed the board, saying he was pleased to see such a crowd but it was “almost too late.”
He criticized the recent urgings of Guilderland school leaders to advocate for the district by pressing the governor for more state aid to schools.
“The only solution is not requesting more money,” Burke said. “Other districts need it far more than we do,” he said, naming some that are in “desperate straits.”
Burke said the solution comes down to collective bargaining, compromise, and higher taxes.
He spoke of the “noose collective bargaining has around our neck” and said that temporary concessions can be a “big threat,” dropped at any time.
Referring to the assistant superintendent for human resources presiding over an annual awards ceremony for staff, Burke said at first he thought it was nice she “gives everyone a hug and kiss.” Then, he thought, “Oh, my god, she sits at our bargaining table.”
Burke concluded that going “hat in hand” to the governor is fruitless. “When you ask these kids…to write letters, you send them on a fool’s errand,” he said. Rather, what is needed, Burke said, are concessions “that are real and permanent.”
Soon after, Wiles gave a report to the board on two recent regional gatherings on school funding. The first, on Jan. 31, in East Greenbush, was attended by 1,500 people from 47 school districts, she said, and focused on three things — ending the gap elimination adjustment, which takes money from each district’s aid to balance the state budget; attaining adequate and equitable funds from the state; and securing meaningful mandate relief.
The second meeting, on Monday, in Niskayuna, featured a “how to” approach to achieve those goals, she said.
Wiles concluded, addressing those at the meeting as well as those listening to the broadcast, “If you have not yet written your advocacy letter, do so. It does make a difference.”