SCHENECTADY — Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara entered first grade at Hamilton Elementary School unable to speak English, he said.
Without the city’s public schools, he might not be serving in the state Assembly, he said, which is why advocating for proper state funding for the district has been a main priority of his.
On the eve of the Schenectady City School District’s budget vote, city leaders and state representatives gathered in the library of Mont Pleasant Middle School to tout the impact of an increase in state foundation aid. The $7.5 million boost in funding for 2017-18 will allow the district to provide additional services and staffing, as well as cut the tax levy, if voters approve the budget.
“We believe that a reduction in the tax rate should become the best economic development stimulus that we see in the city,” said Superintendent Larry Spring. “Fund our schools correctly, and you will see the economic development and turnaround happen.”
The budget would cut the tax levy by $1.1 million, or 2.04 percent. The tax bill for a Schenectady home valued at $100,000 would decrease by at least $100 in 2017 as a result, the school district said.
In addition, it includes $5.7 million in new programs and services, including dozens of new teachers, additional clinicians and a mobile crisis response team to assist students with urgent mental health needs. The plan also establishes a general education “continuum” that will focus extra services on struggling students who don’t qualify for special education.
Spring said the district presented five different budget scenarios to the school board, a move necessitated by uncertainty due to the delay in passing the state budget. The proposals ranged from making minimal increases in services, to making significant improvements to staffing and facilities, Spring said.
“This is at the high end of what we looked for,” he said of the proposal voters will consider Tuesday. “It’s an idealized budget scenario for us this year.”
That hasn’t been the case in the past, as a lack of state aid has hamstrung the district, Spring said. He likened it to running an 800-meter race where the runners aren’t staggered to start, putting the districts on the outside lanes at an immediate disadvantage.
This year’s increased aid provides a first step toward creating a staggered start, Spring said. While he appreciates state leaders acknowledging that high-needs districts like Schenectady require more funding, he said he expects local leaders will need to advocate every year to keep the momentum going.
State leaders in attendance Monday acknowledged the same. Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, Assemblyman Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, and Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie, said they’ve long fought for added state aid for Schenectady, which is considered a low-wealth, high-needs district.
Though Schenectady and other Capital Region districts saw a sizable boost in funding this year, most are still not close to what courts have determined they’re entitled to under a “foundation aid” formula.
Tedisco called the fight for proper foundation aid “an old chestnut,” and said the state Legislature in past years wasn’t as unified on the issue. Some representatives are concerned about ensuring the quality of private schools or charter schools, but perhaps if public schools were properly funded, that need would go away, Tedisco said.
As a result, local and state leaders agreed that this year’s beefed-up district budget is only a first step toward consistent equity.
“We moved the ball closer to the goal line,” Tedisco said, “but we’ve got to get it across the goal line and get to that full funding level.”