Schenectady County

Public airs concerns on Niskayuna school budget

A school counselor position, class sizes and the amount of the district’s tax levy increase were on

A school counselor position, class sizes and the amount of the district’s tax levy increase were on the minds of those attending the Niskayuna school board meeting Tuesday night, at which the district’s budget public hearing was held.

District Superintendent Susan Kay Salvaggio and Assistant Superintendent for Business Matthew Bourgeois went over the budget, what was kept in and what would have to be done should voters not give the required 60 percent approval at the May 21 vote.

The majority of the public speakers Tuesday night, many of them students themselves, focused on the counselors for the middle school, worried that proposed changes would reduce the amount of time counselors could devote to student needs.

Among those speaking were Anne Skrebutenas and her daughter Lucy, an eighth-grader.

Lucy spoke to the board about times when the school counselors have been helpful to her. Her mother spoke about how thankful she was that the counselors could help.

“I credit the counseling program in this district,” Skrebutenas told the board. “I never in a million years thought we were a family who would ever utilize these services, and they became critical.”

The mother told the board that she feared those services wouldn’t be fully available to others if the reductions went through.

District officials said later that the plan is to reduce one full counselor position across grades six to 12, with half of that position lost at Van Antwerp Middle School and half at the high school.

The public comments came after Salvaggio and Bourgeois outlined the budget and its expected impact on district taxes and programs.

Niskayuna is proposing to voters a $76.3 million spending plan, a dollar figure Salvaggio and Bourgeois noted is less than even the 2010-11 spending plan from three years earlier.

The 2013-14 spending plan calls for a 5.76 percent increase in the tax levy, with an estimated tax bill increase of $276 for a Niskayuna home assessed at $250,000.

The tax levy increase exceeds the district’s 4.66 percent cap, meaning approval by a 60 percent supermajority of voters will be needed to enact the spending plan.

If voters approve the plan May 21, it will be put into effect. If they reject it, officials said they would likely cut it down to the tax cap limit, meaning that $559,000 would have to be eliminated and the budget put to voters again. Rejection then would mean that nearly $3 million would have to be cut under a contingency plan.

As the budget stands, all eight schools remain open, kindergarten remains full-day and class sizes on average will remain the same as the current year and within district guidelines.

Bourgeois also outlined about $2.5 million in spending reductions he said the district was able to find.

“We tried as best we could to stay out of the classroom whenever possible,” he said.

The equivalent of eight full-time support staff positions would be cut and just fewer than than 14 teaching positions. Actual layoffs are expected to be fewer due to retirements and resignations, officials have said.

Regarding the counselors, district officials said later that Van Antwerp would have one and a half, Iroquois would have two and the high school would have five and a half positions. The new numbers would mean a 270-1 student-to-counselor ratio at Van Antwerp; 294-1 at Iroquois; and 247-1 at the high school.

Also, a newly hired K-12 social worker would be stationed at Van Antwerp. Two social workers are retiring, and only one is being replaced.

For district parent Kathy Carey, it was class size that was on her mind Tuesday night. She asked the board to add a new section to Hillside. She fears there will be larger class sizes there, especially in comparison with other elementary schools in the district.

Carey said she doesn’t believe the district should wait for firmer enrollment numbers before acting.

“The fact that the numbers are fluid does not explain or address the problem that Hillside is clearly at a disadvantage,” she told the board.

For district resident Carol Wall, the issue was simply with the district’s numbers and the district’s attempt to get approval for a budget that exceeds the tax cap.

Wall said this year will be the first time she will vote against the budget’s passage, saying it sets a bad example for children.

“What kind of role model is that?” Wall asked. “Really, what are we teaching our children about social and fiscal responsibility when we choose to live beyond our means?”

District officials have cited loss of state aid, increasing pension costs and reduced availability of fiscal reserves as contributing to the budget figures.

District officials have planed a host of public budget presentations, including one tonight at 6:30 at Rosendale Elementary School; 7 p.m. Monday at the high school; 6 p.m. Tuesday at Town Hall; and 7 p.m. Tuesday at Craig Elementary School.

Presentations are also scheduled for 7 p.m. May 15 at both Iroquois and Van Antwerp and 1:30 p.m. May 17 at the town library.

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