District fears season of cuts, as budget details shake out

Legislators vow to improve upon Cuomo's pitch
Students read together at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School's summer program, which serves more than 600 students.
Students read together at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School's summer program, which serves more than 600 students.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

SCHENECTADY — Schenectady school district officials are setting the stage for a budget conversation that centers on what programs to cut – a stark contrast from last year’s discussions about program expansions and tax cuts.

The discussions come as local lawmakers from both major political parties said this week they will push to boost education funding at least enough so districts won’t be forced to undo progress from last year.

Working from a series of assumptions about how much teacher pay and benefits will increase, and accounting for the $1.6 million boost in foundation aid called for in the governor’s proposed budget, Schenectady is expecting to fall about $5 million short of what it needs to maintain the same level of student programs and services that were offered this year. Earlier presentations projected a larger budget shortfall.

District leaders haven’t discussed specific programs yet, but they have invited community members to a series of budget forums next month. The invitation frames the discussion in terms of potential cuts.

“Based on current information and projections, (the district) will need to make more than $5 million worth of reductions and cuts,” states the invitation to the community forums.

That budget shortfall represents a little less than the amount of money the district was able to spend last year to expand student programs – about $5.7 million. Last year’s investments boosted district staff by 66 positions, including 40 new teachers and seven social workers and school psychologists. At the time, Superintendent Larry Spring called the budget a “watershed” moment in his tenure as superintendent. 

The district also launched a summer program – calling it a pilot effort – that served over 600 kids. That program is only partially accounted for in the district’s projected shortfall and would have an added cost if the district hoped to maintain it this coming summer – let alone expand to more students, as officials hope.

Local lawmakers said they don’t want to see that progress lost this year, while acknowledging the tough budget season ahead.

Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, said lawmakers need to “sustain and build on” investments schools have made in recent years. Mentioning Schenectady and last year’s expansion of student services specifically, Santabarbara said the district needs enough funding to protect that progress.

“All the programs (the district’s) been able to restore for not even a year might be lost the next year,” Santabarbara said. “We’ve made that investment, and we need to protect that … we’ve got to stay with our investments until the job is done.”

Three Republican senators also said they expect the Legislature to ultimately improve on the governor’s budget proposal on school aid.

“I’m extremely concerned with the lack of funding that the governor has in his executive budget proposal,” said state Sen. George Amedore, R-Rotterdam. “The more the state can pick up its fair share of education, the less stress there is on the local property-taxpayer.”

Amedore said “school boards will have some tough decisions to make” this year, but he added that he doesn’t want to see districts backslide on recent improvements.

“The last thing I would want to see is the inability for a school district to continue to improve on hiring good-quality teachers… of offering the curriculum programs that are essential to a more well-trained workforce,” he said.

State Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, echoed that message, panning the governor’s proposal and pointing out it is usually a starting point from which lawmakers find more money for schools. He also suggested the state’s revenue picture may improve in the coming months.

“We took one step forward last year with the funding we fought for, and now we are taking two steps back with the proposal he has given us,” Tedisco said. “But that’s not the end of the story.”

Sen. Jim Seward, R-Oneonta, said he hopes the Legislature can do “at least as well” as last year’s $1.1 billion in state aid funding – about $300 million above the governor’s proposal.

“In a year like this, we aren’t going to break any records in terms of a state aid increase, but I think we are going to do better than the governor’s proposal,” Seward said.

Schenectady School District Community Forum Schedule:

  • 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 8, at Mont Pleasant Middle School Schenectady Room
  • 6:15 p.m. Monday, Feb. 12, at Central Park Middle School Library
  • 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 13, at Oneida Middle School Library 
  • 5:30 p.m. Feb. 27, at Paige Elementary School and Library

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