Teacher furloughs would cut school expenses

State rebate or not, the Schenectady school board should have proposed a budget with no tax increase

State rebate or not, the Schenectady school board should have proposed a budget with no tax increase.

In order to close a $1.37 million budget gap, the board and Superintendent Laurence Spring decided to make $500,000 in administrative cuts and raise taxes 2.75 percent, or $60 per $100,000 household assessment.

The tax increase might not sound like much, but when city and school district taxes incrementally increase year after year, it all adds up in the end.

Yes, homeowners will receive a state rebate this time around, which will offset the tax increase, but there’s something morally uplifting when a budget is passed without an increase. Residents of Schenectady rarely get to experience this feeling and now they will have to vote on yet another budget calling for higher taxes come May.

The state did increase the amount of total aid given to the school district this year, but it failed to provide enough, which was one of the main reasons there was a budget gap and why the board’s task of approving a budget was extremely difficult.

But it was unfair of the board and Spring to put forth the notion that not increasing taxes would have had to come at the expense of cutting K-6 art, music and completely eliminating athletics at all levels.

I didn’t assume for one second that they were willing to cut these widely popular programs and it was unfortunate that many students and parents had to worry and were forced to rally against such an egregious idea.

A sure way to reduce school district enrollment is to cut programs that students and parents want and in many cases, depend on. Luckily, this did not happen, but some parents were probably actively looking into transferring their children out of the district this fall.

So what should the board and Spring have done to close the $870,000 gap without increasing taxes? Well, the school district has to pay for mandated costs and obligatory contractual expenses. There’s no getting around them.

Not to mention that they had already accomplished quite a bit in lowering the gap through the administrative cuts and readjustment of projected costs in health care, teacher schedules and voluntary reductions.

Furlough option

I think one of the only plausible alternatives to cutting programs or raising taxes is the implementation of a furlough for teachers and even administrative staff.

Asking for a one- or two-day furlough for non-tenured teachers seems reasonable, coupled with the same concessions being made by administrative staff. Shared sacrifice is something to be proud of, especially when it is for the good of the students and homeowners of Schenectady.

While no one likes less money and unpaid leave, at least teachers get to keep their jobs, homeowners don’t have to suffer another tax increase and the school district’s popular programs remain intact.

It’s hard enough to keep students attentive throughout the school day. Good luck doing that by eliminating music, arts and sports.

The idea of “one day without pay” was raised by Spring during budget discussions, but it was quickly ruled out because of the adoption deadline and the difficulty of negotiating with the Schenectady teachers union.

But if not a furlough, what else could be done? Again, if the goal is to not cut programs, not increase taxes and no more readjustments can be made, any alternative strategy will still have to involve teachers.

Temporary layoffs and reduction in time, which reduces individual salaries based on pay scale, should be considered. This payroll-tuning strategy is used more in a corporate environment, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t be implemented within a school district as long as it is tailored properly.

Ideas like these cannot be tabled any longer. Spring needs to sit down with union leaders and discuss the possibility of implementing a contingency option consisting of the aforementioned items, including a furlough, for the 2015/2016 school year and subsequent years.

With all the readjustments and budget finagling done by the board and Spring this year, what are they going to do next year? Pull a rabbit out of their hat that happens to be clutching a million dollars in its paw?

They cannot sit back and wait for the day when the state corrects the inequities of its school aid distribution. That day may never come.

With rising annual health and pension costs being passed on to the school district, it seems only fair that the teachers union compromise even more in order to help close small budget gaps.

The school district claimed it would save roughly $2.6 million when it agreed to a four-year contract with the teachers union back in 2012. This is thanks to some mild concessions on step raises and health care contributions.

More concessions are needed, though. There must be cost-saving measures put in place when future budget gaps threaten the shelf life of core programs. Whether this is done through contract renegotiations over this summer or whenever new contract negotiations begin, it must be addressed.

When it comes to adopting a budget, not everyone ends up a winner. And in Schenectady, it is far more likely that no one wins at all. This needs to change. Students should always triumph, and if their victory must come at the expense of adults through shared sacrifice, then so be it.

Robert Caracciolo lives in Schenectady and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

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