Schenectady County

Student, teachers say Schenectady school budget favors the arts

It isn’t often that students ask for more math and less art, but that was the message they brought t

It isn’t often that students ask for more math and less art, but that was the message they brought to the Schenectady school board Wednesday.

“I think it’s ridiculous a student has more opportunities to make a vase than take calculus,” said senior Deshawn Kunath, 17.

The current high school course catalog has 57 fine arts electives. That’s more than all the classes for English, math, social studies and business combined, said social studies teacher Chris Ognibene.

He criticized the school board for cutting core teachers rather than elementary art and music.

“ ‘I Have a Dream’ will never be as catchy as a show tune, but it matters more,” he said.

He added that the recent production of “Hairspray” required students to understand the civil rights era. Without that “fundamental knowledge,” he said, “it’s just a bunch of songs.”

He also said the board deliberately hid the cuts at the high school.

Cuts were described as combining core and elective classes — such as dance class standing in for gym — and as “scheduling efficiencies.”

What was not made clear was that the budget cut six English teachers, 3.5 math teachers, five social studies teachers, four foreign language teachers, and 2.5 science teachers, Ognibene said.

He told the board it was wrong to use “vague language” rather than telling the public what the impact would be in terms of teachers.

And he said the budget clearly favored fine arts.

“This district does not value academic-area teachers as much as others,” he said.

Citing the graduation rate, he added, “Maybe it’s time to value core subjects and teachers a little more.”

Science teacher Agnes Phillips also complained about the cuts, which include fewer labs and higher class sizes. She said she feared it would hurt students.

School board members defended their choices, saying the budget was the best they could do in a difficult situation.

“While we are grateful this budget passed, I don’t think anyone is happy,” said board member Ann Reilly, who called the cuts “heartbreaking.”

Superintendent Laurence Spring thanked the teachers for speaking up for academics.

“There is no booster club for remedial reading,” he said. “There are things we’re losing we’re all uncomfortable with.”

He added that he did not propose a larger tax increase because he feared voters wouldn’t approve it.

But Kunath, who is heading to college with two semesters of credits under his belt, said the board had other options.

“When are we going to put the arts and crafts to bed and put our big boy pants on?” he asked, advocating for cuts in fine arts.

“That’s not how we equip our youth to succeed. That’s not what the high school education is about.”

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