This time, students are the budget planners

They discuss different funding challenges, scenarios, opportunities
Students from Schenectady, Fort Plain and Mohonasen schools work on an imaginary school budget Tuesday.
Students from Schenectady, Fort Plain and Mohonasen schools work on an imaginary school budget Tuesday.

SCHENECTADY — A team of students representing Bayside school offered a budget that expanded advanced-placement and college preparation classes, boosted teacher salaries and offered new after-school activities.

“We have the funds; we have the revenue to spend actual money,” said Quinn Jones, a Fort Plain High School junior participating in the school budget activity Tuesday at Clarkson University’s Schenectady campus.

But the team, which included a pair of Schenectady freshmen and a Mohonasen senior, also learned not every budget decision — especially cuts — will be popular. After slashing school support staff — hall monitors, receptionists and other workers who help run the school — their peers pressed them to justify adding sports teams at the same time.

“Would you rather your kids have those opportunities to take AP classes?” Quinn said, defending the decision. “It wasn’t necessarily something we wanted to do.”

The Bayside budget planners also trimmed full-day kindergarten classes, arguing parents would have a choice between sending their kids to full-day or half-day programs.

At Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara’s sixth annual student cabinet Tuesday, hosted by Clarkson, students from 10 districts took on the work of school boards and superintendents.

Another group faced a yawning deficit as part of a scenario that included a massive storm that caused millions of dollars in damage.

“We are $2 million in debt, and we have to get out of it, so we have to make a lot of cuts,” Schenectady senior Joseph Peat said.

His group cut back on athletic teams, teacher pay bonuses, music classes, raised taxes slightly and dipped into the small district’s reserve fund.

“We figured this was a rainy day,” said Madeline Elliott, a Canajoharie senior. “Literally.”

The point of the exercise was for students to work through budgetary trade-offs familiar to school boards and administrators across the region. They dealt with questions about how best to balance classroom costs with extra-curricular activities, whether to hire new teachers at lower starting salaries or more experienced — and more expensive — teachers, and whether to raise taxes for an ambitious new academic program or trim plans to get something more affordable.

The budgeting exercise, which gave each team an imaginary school to plan for, sought to simulate issues facing the different districts the students came from.

“You are going to find some of the students here are facing really different challenges,” Santabarbara said.

When the Bayside team first saw details about its imaginary school, Quinn first noticed its eye-popping size: 5,400 students.

“It’s going to be a little different than what I’m used to, because we only have 800 kids in the entire district,” Quinn said. 

As the students talked with one another, they stumbled across the trade-offs and investments the leaders of their districts have made. Schalmont High School, for example, gives out laptop computers to students their freshman year that they keep with them through their time in school.

Even with those computers, Schalmont junior Dominick Scalice said he wished the district gave students more independence.

“Make it as personalized as possible — one-on-one learning as much as possible,” he said.

But Fonda-Fultonville junior Matt Zumbolo said that’s not how things work at his school. A handful of teachers have carts of laptops that are shared among different classes — rarely would a student be allowed to take a laptop home.

“It’s tough because we have a lot of kids that don’t have access to the internet,” he said.“I feel like we are getting there. We will get there, but it will be past my time.”

He said having access to computers would help students do more collaborative work and give them equal access to the internet at home and at school. Is that worth raising taxes for?

“It depends on where taxes are at,” Matt said. “If they are already high, you don’t want to raise them because people start to make a stink about it.”

At Mohonasen, senior Michael Tilison said the district has spent a lot of resources to build a new science and technology building and has expanded classes for nanotechnology and other technology-based fields.

“Everyone is more focused on STEM, and I’m not dissing on that,” he said.

But he said he would like to see the district pay more attention to art and music and give students more chances to take classes that foster the kinds of skills students will need in college and beyond – skills like personal finances, cooking and laundry, he said.

Schenectady senior Joseph Peat, who plans to attend Herkimer College next year to study to become a flight attendant, highlighted some of the most fundamental work districts must budget for: plumbing and alarms. He pointed out that the district had to close dozens of water fountains that tested positive for lead; many of which remain closed off.

“They should spend it taking care of safety issues we have,” Peat said. “We can focus on academics after everything is up to code.”

For future investments, he said students are interested in having more language options, suggesting the school reinstate Chinese classes or offer Japanese or Italian.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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