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Schenectady school board rolls back some budget cuts

Wednesday, April 17, 2013
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— Kindergartners would get some art and music, and Franklin D. Roosevelt Elementary School wouldn’t close immediately under the latest Schenectady school budget proposal.

The $158 million spending plan now includes a 1 percent tax levy increase, which would add $22.45 to the typical homeowner’s tax bill, for an annual total of $2,198.

The tax increase would be enough to undo portions of the most controversial cuts. Among those changes, Superintendent Laurence Spring proposed adding a section of art and music at Mont Pleasant Middle School, either before or after school, in response to complaints from students.

They wanted to take both chorus and band, or other extra classes. But the proposed changes at the middle school wouldn’t leave enough class periods to double up on music. The middle school would offer more time in each class, but only seven classes a day, rather than eight.

Spring said he wanted to stick with the longer classes, and not just because the change saves money.

“We’re actually going to add the equivalent of five more weeks of instruction. Five more weeks of reading. Five more weeks of science,” Spring said.

But school board members weren’t convinced.

Board member Cheryl Nechamen said more music at Mont Pleasant was worth more than “a few extra minutes” of other subjects.

“If we deplete that pipeline, we won’t have a high school program soon,” she said.

Board member Ann Reilly reluctantly said she’d rather close FDR, because it would affect fewer students.

“To have the least negative impact,” she said. “And music is one of the most valued programs.”

But Spring insisted that students need more instruction time.

He also said FDR should close eventually. But he backed off his proposal to close it this year, in the wake of complaints from parents worried about the disruption of switching schools.

The small school has just 154 students. He proposed phasing it out slowly by cutting kindergarten next year.

“Allow students that are there to have that stability for a little while longer,” he said.

Instead, he proposed closing Blodgett School, which houses a preschool program. Those children wouldn’t be disrupted because they all leave at the end of the school year, Spring said.

All kindergartners would get some art and music under his proposal, but only 30 minutes a week for each subject. Currently they get 60 minutes per week for each.

Spring also backed away a little on his proposal to cut aides in special education. Now he is proposing cutting 76 aides, down from 115 two weeks ago.

But board member Ron Lindsay said he’d rather eliminate aides over a two-year period.

“Isn’t it too much change in one year?” he said.

Board member John Foley said he wasn’t willing to add cuts in other places to slow down the change in special education aides.

But some teachers said they need more aides, not fewer, particularly since the district will increase class sizes. Many classrooms are already at their max, but other teachers will generally see an increase of two students.

Teacher Kim Oleksiak urged the board to find other cuts or add more aides, called paras.

“Maxing out our classes is a terrible idea,” she said. “How are we supposed to maximize education with all these kids? If we’re going to do this, I truly think every classroom needs a para.”

Parents also said aides are needed. Two parents described their hopes that their special education children would start part-time mainstreaming next year, with an aide to support them. They worried the district wouldn’t have enough aides for that.

Parent James Cimino also said his son needs to be in a classroom with an aide for every three students.

“I know what his needs are and he needs what he has. He would not be able to function with anything less,” he said.

Special education teacher Erika MacFarlane said she needs the four aides she has for her class of 14 students. Two aides are needed to restrain a student during a meltdown, she said, and she can’t help with that while simultaneously teaching.

“What will the other children do for 20 minutes while we de-escalate the student in crisis?” she asked. “My paras provide support while I continue to teach the rest of the children.”

Spring said classrooms like hers would keep their aides, as would students who needed aides to help them eat and use the toilet. But he said other students might be able to share an aide.

The board has until May 7 to adopt the budget to be presented to voters May 21.

 
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