Schenectady County

Schenectady school budget keeps 26 remedial teachers in posts

Schenectady still plans to cut 16 remedial reading and math teachers, but most of the rest will be a

Schenectady still plans to cut 16 remedial reading and math teachers, but most of the rest will be able to stay at their current jobs in a last-minute change to the school budget.

The board approved the $153.6 million budget by a vote of 6-1 on Thursday. Lisa Russo voted against it, saying she was not convinced that students would learn more under the new spending plan.

“We’ve been very focused on the tax rate, but that has to balance with focus on achievement also,” Russo said. “I don’t think that was done.”

The tax rate would be the same as it was this year, roughly $20.90 per $1,000. After the STAR exemption, the average homeowner with a house assessed at $100,000 would pay $1,452 in school taxes.

To keep the tax rate from rising, the district cut spending by $7.1 million in comparison to this year. One of the major cuts was $1.5 million in remedial teachers, laying off 16.

Superintendent John Yagielski had intended for all of the other remedial teachers to become teacher coaches or early-intervention specialists, designed to help the district’s youngest children before they fall behind grade level.

But after meeting with the remedial reading teachers this week, he announced at Thursday’s school board meeting that 26 of the teachers should keep their current positions. Another 12 should become intervention specialists, while others take on the coaching role. Originally, 38 were to have become intervention specialists.

“I don’t think we dare give up” on early intervention, he said. “But it was clearly such a shocking change. … Perhaps I moved too fast.”

The remedial teachers will now help develop the new early-intervention program and write the job description for the specialists, he said.

The decision may have pleased a parent and a retired teacher, both of whom asked the board not to cut remedial teachers.

Parent Iris Williams said remedial teachers helped her daughter.

“My honest belief is if those remedial teachers had not been there to provide those services she so desperately needed to graduate, she would not have graduated. I believe she would have gotten frustrated and she would have left,” Williams said. “There are other children who still need those services. … The ones that need the help the most, don’t take it from them.”

Yagielski’s plan has always included remedial classes for the worst students. Those students would get the same help they get this year.

A retired teacher, Mary Maitino, told the board that classroom-based intervention worked when she was a teacher.

“It can work for many children,” she said. “Early intervention, to hear we will have that kind of program is really exciting. But I have to say, I don’t understand how it will work.”

She asked a series of specific questions about the amount of time each coach or specialist would spend in the classroom.

“If you can’t answer these questions, perhaps it’s too soon to vote yes,” she said. “Think hard before you eliminate the remedial teachers, particularly the reading. The youngest students in our district deserve a strong literacy program.”

Yagielski told the board that the new program would work better than remediation.

“Remediation comes after we have discovered a problem, after youngsters have struggled with reading,” he said. “We have to switch the model. … It is not too difficult to begin to identify potential struggling readers in the earliest grades.”

But, he said, the district will begin with many remedial reading teachers and a few early-intervention specialists.

“They can, and they will, help us advance that [early-intervention] model,” he said.

Yagielski also announced that after Pleasant Valley teachers said there was room to house both sixth grade and kindergarten in their building, staff reviewed the situation and found that the teachers were right. Both grades will be placed in the school next year.

Yagielski did not budge on one part of the budget: the elementary schools will have full-time social workers, rather than a part-timer who works with special education students and another part-timer for the other students.

One part-time social worker told the board Thursday that regular-education students would suffer without a part-time social worker focusing on them and offered to find ways to work within the budget to continue helping those students.

Board members thanked Yagielski for changing the budget in response to criticism.

“Even if everyone isn’t pleased with it, everyone should acknowledge the willingness to listen, and not just listen but adopt the new information,” board member Andrew Chestnut said.

After last year, in which cost-cutting ideas from teachers and principals were ignored until a week before the budget was finalized, he said this budget was “a dream come true.”

Board member Gary Farkas agreed that it was better than last year but stressed that if the new reading program doesn’t work, he wants to know early so it can be changed mid-year.

“I always say, you only have second grade once,” he said. “Come November, if any of these things aren’t working, I want to know it’s thought out and we’re ready to make a change.”

Other board members also said they’re ready to make quick changes if the new programs fail.

“A budget is a plan,” board President Cathy Lewis said. “You might have changes as things develop.”

The board will hold its official public hearing on May 4 at 7 p.m. at Howe Early Childhood Education Center. The public vote is May 17.

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