Wiles hired for five more years

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Popular principal: Peter Brabant, principal of Altamont Elementary School, dons one of the T-shirts being sold at Village Hall Tuesday night before an Altamont Free Library concert. Soon after a report was released that concluded with cost-saving “scenarios” — four closing his school and one closing Lynnwood Elementary — Brabant said, “The worst scenario would be a fight over this school or that school. If we devolve to that, we won’t solve the problem the way we want our children to solve problems.”

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Wearing their hearts on their sleeves: Before the library’s concert in Altamont Village Hall on Tuesday night, red T-shirts were for sale, emblazoned with the African proverb made famous by Hillary Clinton’s 1996 book, “It takes a village.” Kelly Abbruzzese, far right, reaches out to buy shirts as Altamont Elementary Principal Peter Brabant, center, chats. A consultant hired by the Guilderland School District made five money-saving recommendations for building use in the face of declining enrollment; four of his scenarios involved closing Altamont Elementary School.

GUILDERLAND — The school board was at once united and divided as it started its new year on July 1.

The nine members on June 16 had unanimously extended for five years the contract for Superintendent Marie Wiles — a vote of confidence for the educator who has shepherded the district through several tough years of cuts, with 180 jobs lost, as annual budgets passed with solid margins.

Current unrest in the district was evident as a score of Altamont residents attended the July 1 meeting and five spoke to the board about the worth of their school in the wake of a consultant’s report on building capacity that recommended, in five cost-saving scenarios, closing Altamont Elementary in four of them.

Halfway through the long meeting, Wiles apologized for a comment she’d made in June at a session where the consultant, Paul Seversky, in presenting his report, had come under fire.  Wiles had interceded, saying, “We hired Paul because he’s really good at getting the data, holding up the mirror to us…We may not like what we see…It may be we decide to spend $1.2 million because we want our kids to have a lemonade stand in the middle of Altamont.”

The metaphoric reference was to a recent fundraiser the Altamont Elementary kindergarteners had held on the village green to raise funds to fight childhood cancer, which, in an Enterprise editorial and elsewhere, served as a symbol for the school’s interaction with the community. Wiles, the year before, had centered her commencement address on Alex’s Lemonade Stand as a sign of hope for the future.

At the July 1 school board meeting, Wiles apologized for what she termed her “unfortunate comment about the lemonade stand.”

“It came across as sarcastic and belittling and mean-spirited,” she said, “and I did not mean it that way at all. I simply was trying to make a statement symbolizing all the wonderful things that happen in wonderful communities like Altamont, which I get….So my sincere apologies to everyone in Guilderland but most especially the Altamont community, and I hope you accept my apology in the spirit in which it was offered.”

She concluded, “I’d like to restart this process in a spirit of trust, cooperation, and a group effort to say we’re going to do what’s best for our children. That’s all I really care about.”

Toward the end of the meeting, board member Colleen O’Connell spoke of the moving-up ceremonies she had attended at Westmere and Guilderland elementary schools, replete with hugs and cards for principals. “Let’s not just say that Altamont is a community; those places are communities,” said O’Connell of the other schools. “They may not have a village, a geographical village, but they are centers.”

The board was also united in unanimously re-electing its president, Barbara Fraterrigo, the board’s longest-serving member, for a second one-year term. The board was split in re-electing its vice president, Allan Simpson, also for a second one-year term; he garnered five votes to Judy Slack’s four.

Split votes

In the midst of routine new-year appointments, which were largely unanimous, the board was deeply divided as it had been last year on two matters: the pay for substitute teachers and giving raises to part-time employees like the district clerk, tax collector, internal claims auditor, facilities coordinator, and continuing-education secretary.

Last year, the administration had proposed a daily rate of $95 for elementary and middle school substitutes, and $100 for a full day at the high school. Board member Christine Hayes had proposed paying the substitutes less as a way to save funds in an era when many teachers are without work and perhaps eager for jobs.

This year, as last year on a re-vote in August, after a heated debate, the board voted, 5 to 4, to pay $5 less in each category. The same members as last year were in favor of the higher pay: Slack, O’Connell, Gloria Towle-Hilt, and Catherine Barber.

And the same members were opposed: Fraterrigo, Simpson, Hayes, and Jennifer Charron. Rose Levy, who had voted with the majority last year, did not seek re-election after one three-year term. She was replaced by Christopher McManus, who had come in second in the uncontested May election for three seats. McManus voted with the majority on July 1.

Hayes pointed out that the district had saved over $68,000 with the reduced pay and said only one teacher had complained to the board about it. The district’s budget this year is $92 million.

Slack noted that 287 absences went uncovered last year and said many people had told her they were “hurt or insulted” by the reduction in pay and would substitute elsewhere instead.

Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Lin Severance said this past school year, there were 7,131 incidences of absent teachers across all seven schools; the percent uncovered doubled from the previous year, from 2.5 percent to 5.2 percent.

“From the principals’ perspective, it’s been hugely problematic,” said Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton, far more so than in earlier years.

O’Connell said principals had told her the quality of substitutes had declined.

Wiles, the board was told, had in February “relaxed” the requirements that substitutes stay as long as teachers are required, so that the subs could instead leave when their classroom duties were completed

Still, Wiles said, physical-education classes at Farnsworth Middle School were often doubled up, Lynnwood’s small reading groups weren’t held, and principals regularly scrambled to find someone to supervise rather than instruct classes.

Simpson repeatedly insisted there was no hard data to show the shortage was due to the decreased pay.

“I’m more than willing to give it another year,” said Fraterrigo. “I just see this as sort of a shared sacrifice.”

“Data doesn’t tell the whole picture,” said Towle-Hilt. Gesturing to the contingent in the gallery there to support Altamont Elementary, Towle-Hilt said that there is value in hearing from people in the community.

“Those stories are what helps us make the right decision,” she said. “The data should inform us but it doesn’t drive our decision. To me, it’s much more important that $68,000 be used in a way that’s going to benefit children.”

Fraterrigo countered that, with a cut of $5 per day, “Nobody suffers greatly” and the money could be better used for a full-time teacher.

“Some children are not receiving instruction,” said Barber. “It’s the children who are sacrificing.”

“If the board decides to stay at $90 and $95, that will be the death knell for substitutes,” said O’Connell. “This is our opportunity to get subs back.”

Amy Martin had the last word, after the vote, speaking during the rarely used second public-comment session towards the end of the meeting. A fourth-grade Altamont Elementary teacher, who had come to support the school, Martin said she had personally experienced the difficulties and stress of not being able to find a substitute teacher when she had to be absent.

“It was so bad, Peter substituted for an entire day,” she said, referring to Peter Brabant, meaning the school was without a principal that day.

She also noted that special education and reading teachers were often pulled from their duties to fill in as classroom substitutes. “It’s really stressful and impacts everyone,” Martin said.

The 2-percent raises for the part-time non-instructional employees passed, 5 to 4, with Slack, Towle-Hilt, O’Connell, Barber, and Fraterrigo approving the raises and McManus, Charron, Simpson, and Hayes opposing.

Last year, the board had been divided, 4 to 4, at its July meeting, on whether or not to give those same workers 1-percent raises; at the August meeting, the measure had passed, 5 to 4, with the same five members as this year voting in favor.

The raises do not increase the budget because the energy manager “graciously” turned down his, said Fraterrigo.

Wiles explained this week that Clifford Nooney, the district’s supervisor of building and grounds who also has a stipend as its energy manager, said that, since the energy conservation program is up and running, he didn’t need to be paid as much. “He took a substantial reduction of at least $5,000, which more than funded the modest raise for the others,” Wiles said.

“We’re still in tough economic times,” said Hayes at the meeting, noting last year’s raise was 1 percent. “Why was it raised to 2 percent this year?” she asked.

Severance responded that the workers had gone for two years with no increase before the 1-percent increase last year, and she said that the 2 percent was “generally in line with parameters we are given for other bargaining units.”

She also said, “This is a group of individuals that don’t have bargaining units and no one to advocate for them.”

Further, Severance said, “We still realize a savings of $3,318 even with the 2 percent.”

“We’re treating these people like a unit and they’re not. If they’re deserving of a raise, we should give them a raise, not treat them like a unit,” said Charron, reiterating the argument she made last year.

Charron went on, “I personally know one…She should have a reflective raise. To give her only a few dollars is not the right way to say thank-you for bringing in serious revenue to the district.”

Charron advocated for merit raises.

Slack spoke in favor of the 2-percent raise, saying, “I think it shows in these difficult times, we appreciate the work they do…This raise is covered by the generous giveback of one of our employees.”

High school seeks new assistant principal

The unexpected resignation of Andrea Gleason, employed as an assistant principal at Guilderland High School since last August, left the board in a quandary.

A former English teacher, who had been an assistant principal and director of high school counseling at Niskayuna before coming to Guilderland, Gleason had been selected from 100 applicants; she was paid an annual salary of $90,000.

Her resignation is effective July 31. Gleason could not be reached for comment.

Guilderland has had three assistant principals, working under Principal Thomas Lutsic. All of them handle discipline problems.

At the time Gleason was hired, Mark Brooks was in charge of master scheduling; Lisa Patierne focused on the transition program, easing students from the middle school to the high school; and Gleason focused on managing clubs and extra-curricular activities.

At the July 1 meeting, Simpson asked, with declining enrollment, if the high school administration could be “downsized” as the middle school’s had.

Wiles noted that much study and planning went into reconfiguring the middle-school leadership, and she said of Gleason’s resignation, “This is an unanticipated opening.”

Wiles also said she had discussed the matter with the high school principal, Thomas Lutsic, who reported that enrollment next year is expected to decrease by 23 students to 1,691.

He said that the 2,028 discipline referrals this year were handled by himself and his three assistants and noted the responses involved a lot of counseling. “You want to prevent that behavior from happening again,” he said.

Lutsic also said that social media sites find their way to school and so disciplinary measures now involve more investigation and more students.

He said, too, that new state requirements for evaluating teachers take a lot more of administrators’ time. Each observation takes three to five hours, he said, and includes meetings before and after as well as up to two hours of writing reports.

Simpson responded, “A one-year comparison is a very narrow comparison.” He suggested going back five years, and called Gleason’s resignation, an “opportunity.”

“The question is: What do we do next?” said Wiles.

Fraterrigo said the exit survey from the May budget vote had comments from those who voted against the budget, saying the district is “top heavy” on administration. She advised, “Reduce where we can if we can.”

O’Connell said she was “stunned by the board’s tenor.”

She questioned why board members would vote unanimously to extend Wiles’s service for five years yet not take her recommendations on the pay rate for substitutes or the need for an administrator.

She said of Gleason’s resignation, “It was sudden; it was unexpected” and to analyze the district’s leadership structure because of it “makes no sense.”

“It doesn’t hurt to ask questions because sometimes you flush out ideas,” said Simpson.

“I don’t see this as an ‘opportunity,’” said Towle-Hilt. “This happened and now we’re faced with a problem.”

McManus said he’d like to know more about the options and the pros and cons.

“We don’t meet until August 19 and they have to post something,” said Fraterrigo.

Barber suggested the board take up the matter at a July 11 meeting. The board did and, Wiles reported this week, decided to keep the assistant principal job as it had been.

Lutsic supplied figures showing enrollment at the high school won’t be declining significantly in the near future. “The work is still there,” said Wiles, noting that discipline referrals had decreased, from the 3,000s, since Lutsic became principal several years ago.

The job was posted that day, July 11, with a minimum annual salary of $80,000; the final salary is set by contract, based on experience.

Asked why Gleason resigned, Wiles said, it was “a matter of fit,” adding, “It wasn’t what she expected.”

The “usual process” will be followed, Wiles said, with an interview committee screening the applicants and the district administrators conducting the final round of interviews.

“We would love to have someone on board with the start of school,” said Wiles.

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