Schenectady County

Schenectady school board wrestles with painful cuts

Schenectady school board members are facing heartbreaking decisions on Saturday.

Schenectady school board members are facing heartbreaking decisions on Saturday.

The math is dismal: Of the 10 most painful cuts they’re considering, they can only save one or two. The rest must go.

That means, for example, that the board can save elementary art or music, but not both. And if it did — it would have to eliminate all athletics.

“It feels like no choices at all,” said school board President Cathy Lewis after she crunched the numbers.

The board must cut $2.6 million. The proposed “level three” cuts — the most painful — come to $3.2 million. That means the board can save just $575,000 worth of cuts.

And that figure presumes that they will go ahead with their level one and level two cuts. In all, the school board must cut $5.6 million.

Board members desperately searched for a way out during a marathon session Wednesday.

What to cut

A look at the proposed cuts and the savings each would bring (the board must cut all but $575,000 of these to balance the budget — or find other items to cut):

Eliminate elementary

librarians $400,000

Reduce K-6 music $390,000

Reduce K-6 art $620,000

Reduce gym class, K-12 $400,000

Eliminate athletics $320,000

Eliminate co-curricular

activities $30,000

Reduce middle school

technology class $380,000

Reduce middle school

home economics class $400,000

Reduce aides $180,000

Close the pool $60,000

Total $3.2 million

Source: Schenectady

City School District

They weren’t happy.

“We have to decide which of our students we’re going to hurt,” said board member Ann Reilly. “None of these are a good choice — not one of them.”

There is the chance for a reprieve, but not until much later this year, possibly as late as this summer, after the budget vote.

Superintendent Laurence Spring wants to open negotiations with the labor unions and ask them to agree to one day without pay next year. That would save the district $600,000. The only trouble is that negotiations have not yet begun, and the outcome might not be known until after the budget must be adopted on April 24. The board is aiming for a $181.7 million budget.

That forces the school board members into the awkward position of making a cut that they hope they can negate later. Even after the budget is voted on by the public, the district could rescind layoffs and restore cuts — but it can’t spend more money than the total amount listed in the budget vote.

Spring said he is also talking with teachers over two potential savings: better scheduling to reduce the use of substitutes, and voluntary reductions in the use of space heaters and refrigerators to save on energy costs. But he said those changes might save $170,000, at most.

That’s not enough to fund the district’s sports program, which costs $320,000.

That is one of the 10 cuts on the list.

Board members were somewhat surprised to learn that sports cost that little. Halving the arts program for grades K-6 would save $620,000, for example.

School board member Cheryl Nechamen, who had questioned why arts were on the chopping block while athletics were not, said she thought the figure didn’t include every cost for sports.

“I suspect that number only includes salaries,” she said, adding that she wants to know how much it costs for busing, insurance, uniforms, equipment, maintenance of facilities and the cost of substitutes to cover for teachers chaperoning games.

Spring said many of those costs were included, but not everything. Lighting for the field, for example, was not included because it’s not easy to track.

He said he included athletics on the list partly as a “myth buster.”

“Everyone says, ‘Why not athletics?’ ” he said. “It’s not all that much money.”

Nechamen is hoping to get more details about the athletics on Saturday. The board will meet from 8 a.m. to noon at the Schenectady High School Commons to hash out what cuts they’re willing to make.

Nechamen declined to say in advance what she would cut, saying that it would only encourage supporters of that item to come out in force at the meeting. The session is open to the public.

But she said she must support some cuts to close the $2.6 million budget gap.

“There’s still a big gap there, and we need to fill it with something,” she said.

Board member John Foley was more willing to believe the athletics cost, noting that many coaches are paid $2,000 or less.

“A lot of the equipment is self-provided,” he added.

But he wants to save both arts and music — which would leave the budget in the red.

Reducing music opportunities in elementary school would save $390,000, while halving the arts program would save $620,000. Together, they’re $1 million, almost double what the board can save and still balance the budget.

Foley acknowledged that the numbers are against him.

“I do want to keep arts and music. I don’t know where you can cut to save that kind of money,” he said.

He added that he knows saving those would mean eliminating all sports.

“I’ve wrestled with that,” he said, noting that not all sports are expensive.

“Track, for example. Those sports don’t cost a lot of money. You’re saving thousands,” he said.

But he can’t restore every cut.

“I think that’s why we’ve scheduled a four-hour meeting — so we have time to hash these things out,” he said.

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