Vets get school-tax break

GUILDERLAND — The school board at its February meeting adopted a tax break for veterans, heard about progress on a $17 million building project, and gave budget preferences as a prelude to the superintendent’s presentation of her 2014-15 proposal tonight.

State law was amended in December to allow school districts to offer exemptions to veterans. All of the towns in which the district lies — predominately in Guilderland but also in Bethlehem, New Scotland, and Knox — already offer tax breaks to veterans.

In January, the school board had considered a variety of exemption plans and held a public hearing. Depending on how much of a break is offered to veterans, the added burden is shifted to other taxpayers. If the board had adopted the maximum, the average taxpayer in Guilderland, the owner of a $230,000 house, would have paid an additional $65.60 in school taxes. (Guilderland district voters had trounced a public library expansion plan that carried less of a tax than that.)

Instead, the school board adopted the minimum so that the average Guilderland taxpayer will pay an additional $11.10 in taxes next year.

The board adopted the measure by a vote of 6 to 0 with three members abstaining. (The abstaining members — Gloria Towle-Hilt, Jennifer Charron, and President Barbara Fraterrigo, who was out of town but participated through a computer hook-up — all said they would benefit from the measure.)

So, starting in September, veterans in the Guilderland school district will get exemptions of 15 percent for wartime service, up to $12,000; an additional 10 percent for combat service, up to $20,000; and 50 percent of the veteran’s disability rating as determined by the Veterans Administration or Department of Defense for veterans who sustained a service-related disability, up to $40,000.

Additionally, Gold Star parents, those who have had a child killed in the line of duty during wartime, are also eligible for exemptions.

The exemption will be applied automatically to the school tax bill if the veteran already has the town exemption, said Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders. “You only need to apply if you have not previously applied,” he said. The application is to be made by March 1 through the town assessor.

The Guilderland board appears to be in a minority in adopting the exemption. An informal poll by the New York State School Boards Association showed 69 percent of school board members oppose adopting the exemption; 21 percent supported the exemption while 10 percent were unsure.

NYSSBA’s director, Timothy Kremer, said in a statement that the exemption should be covered by the state rather than by other local taxpayers. Kremer said the law presents school boards with a dilemma: “If they adopt the exemption, that would increase taxes for other taxpayers in their district,” he said. “If they do not adopt the exemption, they could be viewed as not being supportive of veterans.”

Building project progress

On Nov. 14, voters approved a $17.3 million project to update Guilderland’s seven school buildings and improve security and teaching technology.

The board had appointed Sano-Rubin Construction Corporation as the manager for the project. The technology consultant, Engineered Solutions, is currently developing the technology design, said Sanders.

Also, said Sanders, site surveys are being done for parking-lot work and roof-core samples for asbestos testing is underway.

Sanders went on to outline seven steps for the architects and engineers. “Right now,” he said, “we’re in the beginning design phases. Once we have documents, we’ll go out to bid.”

Engineers have been at the schools to look at mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems. And the district has had many meetings with the CSArch design team, said Sanders. “They’ll be designing to meet our needs…It’s our project, not the architect’s project,” he said.

There have also been meetings at the individual schools as plans for reconfiguring lobbies to make the buildings more secure are being mapped out.

Cost estimates will be made based on schematic designs, said Sanders, and maintenance staff will review recommended equipment manufacturers. “They know our systems,” said Sanders. “So, when we put things out to bid, we have the right products.”

Sanders said the district is “on target” to send plans for approval to the State Education Department in July, after which bids will be awarded the following spring.

Budget views

To close a $1.8 million budget gap, the 50 residents and staff members who attended a forum last month were presented with 5-percent across-the-board cuts and asked for their preferences. School board members listened to the forum’s small-group discussions, and then gave their own views at their Feb. 11 meeting.

Gloria Towle-Hilt said her number-one priority was to keep teaching assistants in kindergarten and first grade. Judy Slack, too, thought the teaching assistants were “absolutely critical” — sentiments echoed by Christine Hayes. Catherine Barber wasn’t committed “one way or the other” on the TAs.

Colleen O’Connell noted that the full-day kindergarten program started with half-day, not six-hour, teaching assistants and, she said, compared to other Suburban Council districts, it was “too rich.” Similarly, Fraterrigo said she had “less trouble” reducing kindergarten TAs but considered those in first grade important. Vice President Allan Simpson, who ran the meeting in Fraterrigo’s absence, said he wanted to better understand the proposed TA cuts.

Most of the board members were opposed to cutting a high-school guidance counselor and most favored keeping as many high-school electives and advanced courses as possible while several expressed concerns over too-large class sizes, especially in the laboratory sciences.

While differing opinions were stated on eliminating the varsity ice-hockey team and the junior-varsity golf team, all the board members sounded committed to keeping assistant coaches. Those cuts had been proposed last year, but, after safety concerns were raised, the assistant coaches were kept.

O’Connell said the assistant-coach cuts were the only cuts on the list of proposals that made her angry.

The board’s deepest division was over sending Guilderland students to Tech Valley High School at a cost of $5,300 per student per year. The school, which is being re-located to the Nanotechnology College campus in Guilderland, draws from high schools regionally and is meant to serve as a model of hands-on, innovative scientific learning.

Rose Levy said she had a “hard-time justifying” the cost.

Asked by Slack if she had similar qualms about sending roughly 70 Guilderland students to tech and vocational classes through the Board Of Cooperative Educational Services for a cost of $4,700 per student, Levy said, “That’s a loaded question.” She went on to say of Tech Valley High School, “It’s a hard sell to the community to spend $21,000 on four kids.”

“They’re receiving a program we can’t offer,” said Towle-Hilt. “Have you been there?” she asked Levy, who said she hadn’t.

“It’s a different way of learning and teaching that will teach us in public schools a new way…It’s a valuable tool for us,” said Towle-Hilt.

“It’s a private school,” said Charron, who agreed with Levy.

“It’s public,” countered O’Connell.

As far as supporting a regional teaching model at Tech Valley High School, Charron said, “Guilderland should have learned all the neat, new things by now.”

Fraterrigo asserted that the money spent on Tech Valley could better be put into high school electives.

“It’s four people,” concluded Simpson of Guilderland’s Tech Valley students. “That $20,000 in-house might help 100 kids.”

Other business

In other business, the board:

— Agreed to authorize the town of Guilderland to retain an appraiser to prepare an appraisal of Stuyvesant Plaza as it is challenging the town’s assessment in court. The town will pay 30 percent of the appraiser’s fee and the school district will pay 70 percent.

The town and district have split the fees similarly in other tax-challenge cases since the school district receives far more in taxes than the town.

Sanders estimated the appraisal fee would be about $5,000.

“It’s a unique animal in terms of analyzing value,” Sanders said of Stuyvesant Plaza, which, he noted, had an independent appraiser come in;

— Reviewed a calendar for 2014-15 with 185 school days, 181 of them for instruction, to be adopted on March 4;

— Heard that Ian Rosenblum, the governor’s deputy secretary of education and economics, will visit Guilderland Elementary School and Farnsworth Middle School on April 23;

— Learned from Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton that the Journal of Applied School Psychology will publish a 2010-11 study guided by Guilderland’s Safe and Respectful Schools Committee titled “Perceptions of School Climate as a Function of Bullying Prevention.”

School psychologist Britton Schnurr, retired data coordinator Mary Helen Collen, and Singleton are the co-researchers and authors. “We are very proud of this work and thrilled to contribute to the research and literature focused on bullying prevention and school climate,” said Singleton;

— Learned that a group of Guilderland High School math, science, and technology teachers observed a project roll-out in a biotechnology class at Tech Valley High School on Feb 10; another group will go on March 17. The teachers will discuss what elements could be used in their Guilderland classrooms, said Singleton; and

— Heard congratulations for Taylor Tewksbury, a Guilderland High School senior chosen to represent Section 2 in the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators’ Association. She is a three-sport varsity athlete, ranked 10th in her class with a 97 average. The winners of the state awards, chosen next month, go to regionals; the regional winners then compete nationally.

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