Schenectady County

Schenectady schools chief hikes tax levy to restore cuts

After an outcry about a proposed cut in music and art classes for the youngest students in Schenecta

After an outcry about a proposed cut in music and art classes for the youngest students in Schenectady’s schools, Superintendent Laurence Spring offered a new plan Wednesday.

He proposed adding a 1 percent tax levy increase to the $158.5 million budget for 2013-14.

That would raise $522,000, which would restore most of the cuts to art, music and the elementary libraries. But kindergartners would still have no specialized art or music classes.

Currently every elementary student — including kindergartners — gets 40 minutes of art and music twice a week, school officials said. They had proposed cutting that to once a week, or simply eliminating special classes for K-2 students.

But school board members, parents and teachers opposed the move.

Former board member Lisa Russo, who sent a letter to be read at the board meeting at Mont Pleasant Middle School, said early instruction — before age 8 — was key to developing strong artists and musicians.

“The earlier and more consistent the instruction, the greater the aptitude,” she said. She also cited studies that show an increase in math performance among students who take music.

Librarian Donna Phillips told the board that it could not cut six librarians. That would leave some schools without even a part-time librarian. Phillips covers two schools now.

“I can’t learn 750 students’ names, but so help me, I will try to learn 1,000 students’ names and take three schools [to keep libraries open],” she said.

She added that she knew elementary school librarians aren’t required — but she said they were necessary anyway.

“We don’t wave a magic wand over 13-year-olds and make them information-literate,” she said. “I know the state says you can do this…but to have no services for these students, at all, is unconscionable.”

Spring proposed backing off the six cuts, and eliminating only three librarians.

He also proposed cutting fewer special education aides than the 115 he had suggested cutting two weeks ago. He said the district could instead cut 97 aides, saving about $900,000.

The cut would include some aides who are assigned to particular students. If a student already has an aide in their individualized education programs for next year, district officials may go back through the IEP process again to remove the aide.

Board member Cheryl Nechamen said she didn’t like that.

“I’m a little concerned about that. If we really didn’t think those students needed an IEP that called for a para, why did we write that?” she asked. She called aides by their common nickname, para, which stands for paraprofessional.

However, Nechamen also said she was open to reducing the number of aides, citing an analysis done this year of Schenectady’s special education system.

“It said we’re really relying on paras to do what a teacher should be doing,” she said.

Spring argued that the savings in reducing the aides would be used to hire school psychologists, counselors and reading specialists who could better help special education students.

He said a psychologist, for example, could help figure out why a student was misbehaving and slowly teach the student to replace that poor behavior with another behavior that still met the student’s internal needs.

But board member Ron Lindsay said the students might need aides while they undergo that slow process.

Several aides, teachers and parents spoke to the board about the value of aides, arguing that teachers can’t teach if they are constantly managing one child’s behavioral problems.

One aide said that she can see when a child is about to have a meltdown, and avert it without disrupting the class. A psychologist elsewhere in the building could not do that.

Parent and employee Kim Miller said her autistic son has blossomed with the help of aides in a special education classroom.

“I’m aware we have a huge budget deficit and you are trying to close that gap, but at whose cost?” she asked.

Her son Ben, in second grade, read a statement to the board about the aides in his classroom and how they helped keep him calm.

“I really can’t learn that much without them helping the teacher,” he said.

Lindsay said Ben’s speech was a strong statement for the value of aides.

He noted that Kim Miller stepped in only to whisper, “It’s OK to not be perfect,” when her son struggled over a word and seemed ready to give up. That small assistance got Ben back on track.

“And he was able to keep going!” Lindsay said. “He has a para every day.”

Spring also suggested that the board close one school, at a savings of $230,000. The school will not be revealed until he can meet with staff there Thursday, he said.

But, he said, the school closing isn’t necessary. With that closing and all of the other cuts proposed for the 2013-2014 budget, the district now has cut $300,000 more than it needs. That means something can be put back into the budget.

Board members may vote on the final plan at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Schenectady High School.

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