Schenectady County

Schenectady school board predicts, spends aid hike

Schenectady’s school board is making a very different budget this year. Instead of making lists of t
Schenectady City School District Superintendent Laurence Spring addresses the district's Board of Education in this Nov. 20, 2014 photo.
Schenectady City School District Superintendent Laurence Spring addresses the district's Board of Education in this Nov. 20, 2014 photo.

Schenectady’s school board is making a very different budget this year.

Instead of making lists of things to cut — each of which draws its own group of adamant supporters and opponents — school officials have spent this month adding expenses.

More teachers. More reading specialists. More special education programs.

The school board has bet it’s getting a big increase in state aid. The state Assembly’s version of the budget adds about $6 million to Schenectady’s aid package.

As the board finished its first review Wednesday of the proposed 2015-16 budget — currently set at $170.3 million — board members weren’t wrestling with cuts; instead, they discussed whether to add more.

“I’m just thinking it might be more useful to hire more teachers,” said board member Cheryl Nechamen.

More teachers are proposed, but additional administrators are in the proposed budget, as well.

“Principals have identified this as a need,” said Patricia Paser, assistant to the superintendent.

Superintendent Laurence Spring added that teachers wanted “support” from administrators for children with behavior problems. Nechamen wasn’t convinced.

“If you ask an administrator, they’ll say they want administrators,” she said.

But school board member Ann Reilly backed Spring.

“I’ve heard that [request] from teachers in three buildings,” she said.

It’s a very different debate from past years, when dozens of teachers were laid off. Officials decided this year to put together a dream spending plan, including new programs and additional staff they said would be needed to dramatically improve learning.

School board members have spent this month reviewing the new proposals without any idea of how much state aid the district would receive. They knew they might have to spend April cutting the rosy budget they’d put together.

But now it appears the district may get about as much state aid as the proposed budget needs, and school board members are now talking about results. They hope to see big changes.

“How do I evaluate student outcome?” said board member John Foley, looking forward a year to how he’d determine whether the dream budget worked.

Spring said every new program will be measurable.

“We will know from the outset, the intention of this is X,” he said.

The 2015-16 budget includes proposals that equate to about a $6 million increase. That would bring the budget to $170.3 million. School officials are still tinkering with it, but have announced the main details. With no final word yet on state aid, the tax impact is not yet known, but the school board is shooting for as close to no increase as possible.

The biggest spending increase is $2.2 million in general education. The district wants to add back six of the many teachers who were cut in the past few years.

Spring intends to add back two music teachers, which would help with a waiting list of students wanting to study instruments, and four elementary school teachers.

The four elementary school teachers would eliminate four “split” classrooms, rooms shared by students in two grades. There’s about 12 splits a year, because some schools do not have enough students to fill classrooms at each grade level. Some have, for example, enough students for 11⁄2 classrooms, too many for one teacher, but not enough for two. Instead, a teacher teaches both grade levels at once.

Eliminating all of the splits would cost more than $2.3 million, Spring said, so he proposed eliminating one-third of them, saying that was the limit to what was “reasonable and legitimately possible in this budget.” The cost: $320,000.

New state rules also require the district to hire about 15 more specialized teachers for students who are not native English speakers. Meeting that requirement will be impossible, Spring said, noting the state hasn’t yet certified enough such teachers to fill the need in each district. Instead, he proposed hiring two new teachers, while also paying for additional training for many regular teachers in the district.

“It would get us more than 15, but they wouldn’t be full-time servers of English-language learners,” Spring said. “We’ll put [English-language learners] kids in their class.”

That would cost $480,000.

He also wants three reading specialists, who could help address the reading needs Schenectady students have at every grade level. Three specialists would cost $240,000.

In addition, he wants two “intervention specialists” at $160,000. They would take action when a student needed specialized help.

Along those lines, Spring also wants $250,000 for a new program for students heading toward long-term suspension. The respite program would put students in all-day instruction at the Washington Irving Educational Center for up to four weeks. The program there for suspended students is only two hours a day.

“This is really trying to short-circuit that. How can you keep these kids from needing that long-term suspension?” Spring said. “There will be therapy, and they will develop a plan.”

Special education would also add new programs for students doing poorly. Among the new ideas are classrooms for severely mentally ill students and autistic students. New spending in special education would total $1.3 million.

Another $900,000 is proposed in administrative increases, including more hall monitors and attendance deans at the high school and other administrators to help building principals.

The budget also adds $2.5 million for raises and increases in pension and health insurance costs, but some of those items are rolled into other increases.

That brings the budget to about $6 million more than this year, requiring about an 8 percent increase in state aid if the district was to fund the programs without increasing taxes.

The state budget is still being negotiated, but the Senate and Assembly school aid numbers are similar and both offer Schenectady an increase. The Assembly’s version of the budget gives Schenectady an 8 percent increase.

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