GCSD needs wider community participation in initial setting of direction

To the Editor:

There has been a lot of coverage on the news pages of The Enterprise in recent weeks, and many letters on the opinion pages as well, regarding the studies performed by Dr. Paul Seversky of the Oneida-Madison Board of Cooperative Educational Services that deal with Guilderland Central School District population trends and building capacity. Since the recommendations provided in Dr. Seversky’s work appear to focus on the potential closure of Altamont Elementary School, the public response has been largely driven by families associated with the Altamont Elementary School, as well as by other residents of the village of Altamont.

This is certainly the sort of response I expected, and I applaud the folks in Altamont who care so passionately about their community. The village is a wonderful part of Guilderland, and I share the desire of its residents to see its quality of life maintained.

At the same time, though, I have a number of other thoughts relative to Dr. Seversky’s work, and in particular to the current Guilderland School District approach to decision-making that gave rise to the Seversky report in the first place.

When my family and I (which included at the time an elementary school student and a toddler) first moved to Guilderland, we immersed ourselves in a lot of activities connected with schools. There seemed, in those days, a deep commitment to shared governance and consensus-building.

Simply by volunteering, I was able to serve on committees that dealt with everything from providing input on school budgets, to hiring new superintendents, to evaluating major building projects at Guilderland High School, at Farnsworth Middle School, and yes, at the district’s elementary schools. The policy was open-door, and the philosophical motivation was on creating overall community consensus from the ground up.

Outside professionals were part of the dynamic, but they came along after the district had assessed community sentiment on its own.

I realize that such an approach is time consuming. It often involves bringing willing but previously uninvolved community members up to speed on all matter of subjects. It may not have been the most “efficient” of approaches in terms of the heavy time investment by district administrators and school board members, but it sure was inclusive.

 

Things are a lot different now. The Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee that did good work for decades is a dim memory. I’m not quite sure who provided input on the retention of the current superintendent. I have no clue how it was determined that an analysis of building capacity was the best way to address the district’s need to control costs over the long term.

What I’m seeing here is a clear tilt toward decision-making controlled by the school board and district administration, with only a perfunctory acknowledgement of input from the wider community.

Having “community forums” to listen to and discuss options developed by someone from a different part of the state is a lot different from having community meetings to have district residents assist in developing the range of options for the school board to consider, and, in my view, the new approach is much less than what preceded it.

It is, after all, the wider community that pays the taxes that fund our school system, and I believe that affording that wider community every possible opportunity to participate in direction-setting from the outset is an important responsibility of the school board and administration.

One example of the downside of the recent decision to start discussing potential building closures is in the local real-estate market. Families who already have or expect to have children represent a very critical component of the universe of folks who buy real estate in a quality residential community such as Guilderland.

People like this are looking for not only good schools, but for stability in the school system. Turmoil on the school board, defeated school budgets, the slashing of staff and programs, and even the potential for school closings has an adverse impact on property values in a community.

The potential closing of Altamont Elementary has already had, I have no doubt whatsoever, an adverse impact on property values and the ease of marketing residential properties in the village, and the potential for all sorts of turmoil within the district overall that would be associated with changes to elementary-school catchment assignments, altered bus routes with longer drive times, prospective grade realignments, and all the other possibilities created by the Seversky studies all combine to put property values everywhere in the district on shakier ground than should be the case in a period when economic conditions are edging slowly upward.

When I observe the way in which the current authority structure in the Guilderland Central School District has approached the question of how best to align resources and needs in a fiscal climate that seems likely to continue the recent trend of declining federal and state support for education, I cannot help but be reminded of the situation relative to the Guilderland Public Library only a few years ago.

Rather than doing whatever it took to engage broad segments of the community on developing a facilities plan that addressed the reasonable needs of library users in a fiscally responsible manner, decision-making was done on a top-down rather than bottom-up basis, and the end product was something that did not reflect the needs and wants of constituents. I was strongly and publicly opposed to that end product, and, when given a chance to express their views on the matter, an overwhelming majority of the community felt likewise.

As important as the specific fate of one neighborhood school is to its local community, the Guilderland Central School District is also at a crossroads in the way it approaches the overall concept of governance. What has been made clear by recent developments is that things are very different now than they used to be. I, for one, am not a fan of the change.

Donald Csaposs
Guilderland

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