No one is happy with this year’s proposed Schenectady city school budget — not even the one school board candidate who got to vote on it — and voted no.
Most of the school board candidates have been openly critical of the budget and based much of their campaigns on how they would handle the district’s finances differently. But all of them agree on one thing: the district is facing a severe budgetary crisis that can be resolved only if the school board begins work on the next budget at once, as soon as the new board is seated after the election.
The current school board took a calculated risk with the proposed 2010-2011 budget, choosing to keep the popular foreign language and music classes at the elementary school level even though cutting them would have reduced the tax impact.
The board also decided to use nearly all of the district’s savings to cushion this year’s tax impact. The budget calls for $7.9 million of savings to be spent.
Two controversial cuts are included in the budget. The district plans to close Blodgett Elementary School, spreading the students through the district at a savings of $900,000. It also plans to end the $900,00 instructional coaches program, which paid for 14 master teachers to coach inexperienced teachers. The coaches were embraced by almost every teacher, and even veterans came to them for advice with difficult students.
The $161 million budget has a 6 percent tax levy increase. That translates to an estimated $77 increase for the average homeowner with a house assessed at $100,000 and the STAR exemption. The same homeowner, without the STAR exemption, would pay $100 more than this year.
A senior with Enhanced STAR would see a tax increase of $56 on a house assessed at $100,000.
While candidates said they don’t want taxes to go up dramatically, they said using so much of the district’s savings sets up a potential “disaster” in 2011.
Matthew Brockbank called it “irresponsible,” saying the board was looking for a “quick fix.”
Robert Barnes went further, saying, “It was a last-minute thing. I think [Superintendent of Schools Eric] Ely really set everybody up because he knows he’s on his way out.”
Ely argued against the use of so much savings, but was overruled by the school board.
Other candidates said the board’s decision simply postponed disaster until next year.
“I think that’s way too much. I think that may come back to haunt us,” Ron Lindsay said.
But none of the candidates offered a plan to avoid spending the savings.
“That will just delay it until next year and make it worse next year. But whether there was another option — I don’t know,” said Ann Reilly.
Instead, the candidates are trying to figure out how they’ll fill the $7.9 million hole in the 2011-2012 budget, since they won’t have enough savings to repeat this year’s decision.
“I don’t think there’s going to be much recovery in state aid,” Cathy Lewis said. “I expect it to be very challenging.”
The issue has led them to very different proposals.
Brockbank wants to look for corporate sponsors, saying the problem is so vast that only a large increase in revenue will help.
“We need to find large chunks of cash,” he said.
But he’s also focusing on cuts.
He is touring every school, where he asks each principal what can be cut from their budget. He is already putting together a list.
He also wants to begin negotiations with the unions, possibly offering retirement incentives in exchange for a cheaper contract. His bottom line: the district needs big cuts to avoid layoffs.
Kennard Singh is on the other side of that fence. He wants fewer schools, which would mean fewer administrators and possibly fewer teachers.
“We should start thinking about consolidating the school system. We have too many schools. Start thinking about closing the schools that are too expensive to run. I think that’s a big way to cut cost,” he said.
He also wants to get the public’s input on budgetary decisions.
“The general public should be able to scrutinize that,” he said. “They make a lot of these financial decisions without the public’s approval or publicizing it.”
Barbara Metcalfe is the only candidate who has argued against cuts.
“I’m a taxpayer like everyone else,” she said, but added that she hates to see cuts made simply to reduce the tax burden.
“I don’t like to see good programming go down,” she said.
She proposed a slight reduction in high school electives.
“Maybe we don’t have to offer them all the time, just some of the time,” she said.
She also said she wants the board to think ahead when it accepts short-term grants for new programs that it may not be able to afford to continue once the grant expires.
“We brought in grant money for the Chinese [language program] three years ago. We knew we’d have to take on that expense. Was it really worth bringing it in for three years?” she said, noting that it was proposed for elimination this year. The board chose to fund it instead.
Two board candidates are running primarily on their financial experience, and offered detailed criticisms of the budget as well as specific plans for the future.
Andrew Chestnut said his experience in turning around corporations convinced him that the only way to cut expenses is to reorganize.
“We’re not going to be able to do things the same way and save significant money,” he said. “You stop costs at the beginning.”
And that means starting with a real budget.
As a financial analyst, he’s gone through all of the information released by the district and found them to be inadequate.
He noted that the two budget summaries released by the district don’t add up — and that columns within those budgets also don’t add up to the correct amounts. In one case, a line item was also forgotten when it was supposed to be transferred from one part of the budget to another.
“That to me shows sloppiness and that people aren’t paying attention,” he said. “This tells us this isn’t an Excel sheet. That tells us somebody is re-creating stuff.”
He also criticized the budget preparers for not telling the board how much the district has spent this year. Budget items can vary dramatically from reality — but he has no idea whether the district is sticking to its budget, experiencing great savings in certain areas, or overspending.
“It’s really important to have ‘actuals’ in there. What about reality? People are imperfect and life is imperfect,” he said.
To truly cut costs, he said, the budget must also separate fixed and variable costs so that the board can work to reduce fixed costs as much as possible.
Switching to more energy-efficient lighting, for example, would reduce fixed costs and not impact academics.
He also wants to give principals more autonomy to reduce their own budgets, citing his experience at GE.
“We allowed people to use their own creativity. It was tremendously successful,” he said. “They’ll think of things no one else will.”
Chestnut also wants the board to budget for the long-term.
“If you open a school and two years later you close it, it says something about your long-term strategy,” he said.
All budget items should be evaluated based on whether they improve safety, increase the graduation rate and reduce costs, he said.
Cathy Lewis is also running primarily on her budgetary strength.
She also noted that the budget summary numbers “don’t quite line up.”
But her biggest criticism is that the budget is too vague for anyone to determine what can be cut.
“I don’t have enough information to know,” she said. “When I was doing the city budget, I had a volume an inch thick. You have the opportunity to actually see the detail, whether or not there can be any re-combinations.”
She wants the budget rewritten, with line items broken down by school, grade or subject.
“Everything is kind of lumped together,” she said of the current budget. “There’s not too much detail. You have to look at the details to understand.”
But even without details, she noticed two unusual items in the budget.
First, there was no sign of the many grants the district gets.
And there was also a large unexplained increase in special education.
“There’s a huge increase in teaching students with disabilities. It’s more than 25 percent of the budget,” she said. “It had the greatest jump — it went up over 14 percent.”
Roughly 15 percent of the students are enrolled in special education.
She also found disturbing signs of a possible cash flow crisis in the district.
The district is borrowing money every year to get through lean months before it receives large amounts of revenue — either taxes, state aid or other grants.
That costs the district money in interest payments, but is necessary when an organization knows it will get money later but needs the money now.
When Lewis was on the City Council, she watched the city’s cash flow closely because it sometimes had to borrow money to make payroll. It took the city years to build up enough of a cash cushion to avoid such costly borrowing.
Current board President Maxine Brisport, who voted no when the school board approved the budget proposal, acknowledged that this year’s budget was not developed well. She gathered suggestions from principals and teachers just in time for the final budget session, after learning they had not been consulted previously.
Next time, she said, she wants to start with a “real conversation” with the budget committee and administrators.
“The more input you get, the better off you’ll be,” she said. “I would gather a lot of stakeholders and develop a plan.”
She also wants to meet with the new board members as soon as possible after the election and discuss the budget line by line. Her goal is to make sure they understand which items cannot, by law, be cut.
Robert Barnes wants to start working on next year’s budget immediately, beginning by whittling away the $7.9 million hole.
“That number has to be attacked and we have to fix that before January,” he said.
He also criticized the process.
“We start way too late. They didn’t research it accordingly … a lot of good ideas were not utilized,” he said.
He wants to save money by consolidating the district into nine K-8 buildings, one in each neighborhood, and possibly two high schools.
“Right now we’re paying for 21 roofs, 21 utility bills, 21 of everything. Let’s cut it in half,” he said, estimating it could save nearly $1 million a year.
“I think it can be done without costing taxpayers money,” he said, proposing to issue bonds, get funding from the city and Metroplex Development Authority and apply for federal grants and loans.
“It makes sense and it’s going to save taxpayers a lot of money. It can be done, it just has to be innovative,” he said.
Ann Reilly also wants to start on the budget as soon as the new board is seated, beginning with proposals for cuts from principals and teachers.
“I don’t think we can wait,” she said. “I think it is going to be an incredible challenge.”
She’s also eager to see the entire budget, rather than the summaries that the district has offered to the public.
“I don’t feel like I had enough information,” she said, adding that she wants the budget broken down by mandated items, grant items and contractual items.
As a board member, she said she would not simply consider the superintendent’s proposed budget cuts.
“I would’ve wanted to see every item on the budget — which I was never able to see,” she said.
If the board must cut programs, she said she wants to make many small cuts rather than eliminating a few programs outright.
Ron Lindsay agreed that the board should have started with the complete budget, rather than choosing from the superintendent’s proposals.
“Everything should have been on the table,” he said. “And also I would have certainly used the principals and the department heads to help develop the budget.”
He wants every principal to have their building’s budget – something many of them have asked for – so they can monitor it and propose changes to save money.
“They’re going to know better than anyone what they need to do,” he said.
He also wants to create a five year spending plan, particularly for building maintenance.
“That helps you focus on what your needs are and how to get there,” he said.
He also wants to ask other school districts for ways to share expenses. They may be able to split advance placement courses, among other programs, he said.
How to vote
WHEN: Tuesday, May, 18, from noon to 9 p.m.
WHERE:Where to vote
District 1: City Hall on Jay Street (For residents of city election districts 1, 2, 3 and 4
District 2: Yates Magnet School, Salina Street (city districts 5, 6, 7 and 12)
District 3: Zoller Elementary School, Lancaster Street (city districts 8, 9, 10)
District 4: Schenectady High School from student parking lot near gym (city districts 11, 17 and 18)
District 5: Elmer Avenue Elementary, Eastern Avenue entrance (city districts 13, 15, 16, 28)
District 6: Price Chopper Community Room, 1639 Eastern Parkway (city districts 19 and 27)
District 7: Central Park Middle School (city districts 22, 23, 24, 25)
District 8: Paige Elementary School, Elliot Avenue (city districts 20, 46)
District 9: Woodlawn Elementary, Wells Avenue (city districts 14, 21, 47, 48)
District 10: ML King Magnet School, Stanley Street Entrance (city districts 26, 29, 30, 31, 32)
District 11: Mont Pleasant Middle School (city districts 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40 and Rotterdam district 10)
District 12: Fulton Early Childhood Center (city districts 41, 42, 43, 44, 45)
Anyone unsure where to vote may telephone 370-8100, ext. 40116.
WHO: All voters must be registered with the Schenectady County Board of Elections before 5 p.m. on the day of the vote.
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Categories: Schenectady County