To the Editor:
I am Tim Burke, the Guilderland resident Dr. Marie Wiles cited as inaccurate in last week’s Altamont Enterprise. I have been working with young people for over two decades in a variety of settings and states. I understand how important a healthy school district is. Schools and their staff have an amazing chance to effect change.
I began attending various school meetings to advocate for the strongest district possible, many years before Rae Ellen and I knew we would be blessed with our own child. Dr. Wiles seemed most troubled by four statements I made in my Jan. 3, 2013 letter. Those four points were:
— 1. The board did not listen to the input gathered during Community Conversations. On this point, I could have been clearer. I have no way of knowing how many of the public comments each individual board member listened to or read on their own.
The thoughts and energy of that meeting and individual comments submitted were not part of the discussion at that school board meeting. When the subject of Community Conversations came up, there was no mention of getting feedback from participants about topics like personnel costs or other areas. The focus was on the federal and state government. This criticism does not extend to how the district does business. This theme continued in the Jan. 10, 2013 meeting where the focus was simply on lost funding;
— 2. The information presented at the December 2012 Community Conversations could not be challenged. In my letter, I clearly stated that the presenters’ information seemed very accurate, but that questions, written on index cards, could not be immediately followed up on and the answers given were misleading. For example, one person asked about health insurance. Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders gave a short answer, saying the health-care committee takes advantage of cost savings since it operates outside the time constraints of contracts. This answer is absolutely true.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t explain how much money the committee has saved, how much the four plans offered to district employees and retirees will be next year per employee, how much the cost has gone up over the past five or 10 years, whether incentives have been given out for employees to opt out of our insurance plans, and if any benefit cuts have been made.
I tried to write down these follow-up questions, but the format of writing questions on cards makes it difficult to have follow-up questions. In my opinion, Mr. Sanders’s answer is not complete. This avoidance of benefit costs continued in the Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2013 meeting;
— 3. The influx of one million dollars from the federal government helped the district afford full-day kindergarten. Any number of board members and Citizen Budget Advisory Committee (CBAC) members can confirm that the introduction of full-day kindergarten was repeatedly linked to the million-dollar federal stimulus money. The Altamont Enterprise editor printed one quote from the former school board president, Richard Weisz, that verified this; and
— 4. The majority of CBAC didn’t gain consensus over whether to start full-day kindergarten or not. I personally kept track of the vote as individuals spoke about their feelings about full-day kindergarten. I personally felt full-day kindergarten would be a good thing for our district (though I disagreed with some of the claims that were being made about full-day kindergarten) and, with an infant at home, voting against the proposal was a difficult choice. I was more concerned with the programs we would lose due to looming budget issues.
I spoke to five school board or CBAC members who agreed the group overwhelmingly thought full-day kindergarten was a great idea. Three agreed that the majority of CBAC felt that the financial concerns facing the district made it a bad time to implement this change (no more federal stimulus money, decreased or flat support from the state and rising personnel costs), two didn’t remember specifically, and one felt there was no consensus.
The fight among the school board itself was much closer and contentious. Full-day kindergarten was initially voted down by the board and only passed after board President Weisz pressured board member John Dornbush to change his vote that full-day kindergarten passed.
Since Dr. Wiles was not there, I wonder how she can speak with such authority about many of these events. This event has been discussed repeatedly in print and in public forums; none of these facts has been disputed before.
Finally, I would like to note how disappointed I was that Dr. Wiles chose to dispute these events at all; her interpretation of facts were wrong and now anyone who chooses to participate in this forum has to worry about having Dr. Wiles attempt to rewrite history.
Instead, I would like to see her invite people into the budget process and make information more easily accessible. My reason for being involved is to generate conversations that include all the different factors that are affecting our schools and our kids. Attacking citizens who want a better district is not the way to stimulate participation.