Board mulls forum to recruit more candidates

GUILDERLAND — School leaders Tuesday gave a final overview of the $92 million budget proposal for next year; voters cast their ballots on May 20.

No members of the public spoke at the state-required public hearing as it comes too late in the process for any change in the spending plan.

School district voters next Tuesday will also decide on a $995,000 proposition for seven large buses and a plow truck.

And, they will cast their ballots in an uncontested election. Three candidates — incumbents Allan Simpson and Judy Slack along with newcomer Christopher McManus — are running for three seats on the nine-member unpaid board. 

Late in Tuesday’s meeting, board member Colleen O’Connell proposed that, for next year, the board hold a forum to encourage residents to run for the board.

She noted that last year, with another uncontested school board election, fewer than 2,800 people voted; Guilderland has 22,625 registered voters. She also said that seven residents picked up petitions this year but only three returned them.

“I feel it’s not good for the district,” O’Connell said, asserting that it depresses voter turnout and doesn’t lead to robust debate.

“I think it endangers the budget process and the passage of the budget…The ‘no’s always come out,” she said.

Board member Catherine Barber responded, “I know you didn’t like the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee.” The defunct committee of volunteers spent weeks reviewing in detail the administration’s budget proposal, a process that has been replaced by a series of public forums where residents comment on lists of potential cuts.

“A lot of us came from there,” said Barber of serving on the committee. “It was a lot of information and getting to see the board in action and all the administrators.”

“I’m not for bringing back CBAC,” said O’Connell, who had also served on the committee. “I think we were too reactive then.”

Board member Judy Slack thought the forum to encourage candidates was “a good idea” but puzzled over how to get residents to attend, quipping, “Kick ’em, pull ’em?”

“Serve food,” offered another board member.

Slack also said that more than half of the local school board elections are uncontested. “It’s not just us,” she said.

“We have it in our power to recruit…Some people need to be invited in,” said O’Connell. “There are so many myths about being on the school board; people think you are taking complaints 24/7, which is just not true.”

Board member Jennifer Charron referred to the district-wide meeting the day before to set priorities for the year and praised the young people “practicing their public-speaking skills.”  She recommended a student serve as a non-voting board member.

The board’s communications committee will discuss the matter further and come back to the board with recommendations.

Budget overview

The $92 million budget proposal comes in just $12,427 below the state-set tax-levy limit; if it were over the limit, 60 percent, rather than 50 percent, approval would be required to pass it.

The levy is up 1.69 percent over this year, close to the $66.8 million maximum.

Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders said that the average home in Guilderland is assessed at $246,500 and its owner would pay $104 more in taxes next year if the budget passes.

If the budget were defeated, the board could put up the same or a modified budget or go directly to a contingent plan. A contingency budget eliminates such items as the purchase of new equipment or community use of school buildings and also must meet an administrative budget cap.

If Guilderland were forced to a contingency budget, Sanders said, “We would have to find $1.3 million more in reductions.”

Superintendent Marie Wiles went over the reductions in the current budget proposal. A total of 33.85 jobs is being cut (8.5 teachers, 9.15 teaching assistants, and 16.2 support staff), bringing the total number of staff cuts to 180 since the gap elimination adjustment was introduced, reducing state aid.

“There’s a good side to this story,” Wiles went on.

She noted that the first-grade teaching assistants are being maintained at their current level, as is the seven-member high-school guidance-counselor staff, and the assistant coaches.

Wiles also named two increases: A reading-teacher post is being added at the elementary level as one is subtracted at the high school, and there is an increase in teaching English as a second language. Guilderland now has over 180 students who have a native tongue other than English; they speak over 30 different languages.

Wiles also highlighted several new initiatives. The proposed budget includes mini-course enrichment — focusing on science, technology, engineering, and math — for students in kindergarten through eighth grades, through the Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

Second, a distance-learning program will link Guilderland High School with Schenectady and Niskayuna.

And third, Guilderland High School will host a regional summer school to which students from Berne-Knox-Westerlo will be bused.

“The bottom line in all this is balancing,” said Wiles, who spoke of fulfilling the district’s mission with declining resources, and credited the community for its participation in the budget process.

“Without that insight from our community, I don’t think we’d have the quality budget we do,” she concluded.

Health insurance

Neil Sanders informed the board on recommendations for health insurance.

Guilderland has a committee made up of Sanders, Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Lin Severance, and representatives of the district’s 11 bargaining units that has been focusing on the Affordable Care Act — “Obamacare as it’s affectionately known,” said Sanders.

This year marked the opening of the state-run marketplace exchanges where individuals could choose from one of four levels of plans or face penalties.

The employers’ “play or pay” mandate has been deferred until 2015, Sanders said. Guilderland has to begin tracking and reporting employees’ work hours to determine to whom it must offer health insurance; any employee averaging 30 or more hours a week or 130 hours a month must be offered health coverage, or the district would have to pay a penalty.

“We have from now until next year to build the system to capture the data,” Sanders told the board, adding in his written remarks, “This is another mandate that we will need to comply with by diverting more staff and resources away from present work.”

The health committee made four recommendations for next year.

First, it recommends keeping the four current plans with no change to benefits since the grandfathered status keeps costs down.  “The district will save about 2 percent on premium rate increases, which amounts to approximately $142,000 in total for all four plans,” said Sanders.

Second, the committee recommends continuing Express Scripts self-insured prescription drug coverage with no change — $5 for generic, $25 for brand name, and $40 for brand name non-preferred drugs. The co-pays were structured this way for 2012-13 to encourage people to buy generic drugs, which has reduced costs overall.

Third, the committee recommends continuing the CanaRx mail-order prescription drug plan option for brand-name maintenance medication. The cost of drugs is lower in Canada and the employee has no co-pay. “The 2013 savings is just shy of $400,000,” said Sanders.

Finally, the committee advises offering a Medicare Choice plan option for retirees over 65 years old; for next year, an out-of-area nationwide Blue Shield Medicare Choice plan will be offered. Currently, 68 Blue Shield retirees or their spouses over age 65 live outside the Medicare Choice coverage area.

The government-subsidized Medicare Choice plan from individual carriers provides comparable benefits less expensively than the federal government.

Currently, 225 participants are enrolled in a Medicare Advantage Plan, an increase of 30 over the year before, with a total savings to the district of $657,000 annually and $164,000 in savings for retirees. On average, the district saves $2,900 per participant with each retiree realizing contribution savings of $730 annually.

“It’s a win-win,” Sanders said, for the district and retirees.

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