SCHENECTADY — While Schenectady city school leaders expect to expand student programs this budget cycle, it’s still not clear how far they will be able to go in making new investments in their schools.
However, on Monday, during the first of a series of community engagement sessions aimed at soliciting input on next year’s school budget, district officials unveiled a wish list of budget requests.
The wish list included a litany of ideas to expand on efforts to better engage students, strengthen mental health support, extend both after school and weekend learning opportunities and connect more closely with families.
“I just want all of it,” said Mary Einhorn, a parent of two elementary school students and one of just two community members who showed up for the community budget forum Monday night, as she worked to narrow in on the proposals she thought were most important.
Schenectady school leaders are eyeing investments to expand activities and electives for students, increase staffing for students at risk of falling far behind grade level, widen access to laptops and other technology and much more, according to a wish list of budget proposals developed by district staff.
According to Superintendent Larry Spring, the wish list accounted for about $15 million to $20 million in new programs and services, ranging from establishing afterschool and weekend math tutoring for elementary students to developing new high school courses based on student interests.
The catalog of potential new investments comes from requests submitted by individual schools and central district office departments. Together, the requests outline the direction district and school leaders hope to take under a new budget – and in future years.
The proposals included an expansion of the district’s general education continuum, a spectrum of intensifying services for students that mirrors the strategy of special education, to more students. Schools, particularly at the elementary level, requested around a dozen new teachers who would work as a second teacher in classrooms, targeting students struggling with subjects like math and reading. Many of the elementary-level requests are focused on math instruction, a major area of weakness for the district on annual state tests.
High school leaders requested funds to establish new elective courses based on student interests as well to expand afterschool clubs and activities – both part of a broader effort to find ways to engage and interest students in their school work. The new classes would also give students more flexibility in setting full class schedules.
The high school requests also included positions to focus on supporting students who are struggling to keep on track for graduation, setting up a “grad lab” for students to work on specific areas of deficiency instead of retaking entire courses. The request would also expand use of a computer-based credit recovery program that enables students to make up missed credits online.
The wish list also includes financial support for the district’s summer enrichment program, which finished its second year over the summer. The program targets elementary school students in an attempt to minimize the learning loss students in Schenectady struggle with over the summer.
Spring said he wanted to shift funding of the summer program to the general fund, rather than relying on grants to support it, while continuing to add more students to the over 1,000 elementary school kids who took advantage of it last summer.
“I don’t know a soul who doesn’t want it,” Einhorn said of the summer program.
Einhorn also emphasized the value she placed in providing students activities and programs they were interested in and would connect them closer to the school. “So they feel more connected to what it is they are doing everyday,” she said.
The wish list also included proposals to not only broaden both the school day and week, but also offer more chances for students to get extra math tutoring after school and on Saturdays. While extending school activities to the weekend could present logistical hurdles, Spring said the district would explore how to overcome those if the community supported Saturday activities.
“If it’s a thing parents would want for their kids, we would want to look at it,” Spring said of working out those details.
Other items on the list covered facilities needs and an expansion of the district’s in-house maintenance teams, as well efforts to add new social workers and expand a crisis prevention team that targets students with mental health needs.
District officials remain at least a few weeks away from knowing how many of the proposals they will be able to fund in the new budget. With the district reliant on state aid for about 60 percent of its budget, how far it will be able to go with new investments is heavily dependent on how budget talks in Albany work out.
Board candidate emerges
Former school board member Andy Chestnut, one of the few community members on hand for the budget forum, said he planned to run for the school board. Chestnut, who graduated from Linton High School in 1971, served on the school board from 2010 to 2015.
Current board members Cathy Lewis and Ann Reilly have both said they intend to run for new three-year terms, while board member Mark Snyder has announced he will be leaving prior to the end of his term, creating a third opening on May’s ballot.
Chestnut, who served on the board when it hired Spring as superintendent, lauded efforts the district has taken in recent years to expand supports for students and said he wanted to do what he can to support those efforts. He said many of the students in the district need to find ways to connect to the school system if they are going to succeed.
“Schenectady is rich in supply of kids who aren’t being served very well by the adults, if they are in a home where they have trouble sleeping because it’s too crowded or they don’t have places they can do their work,” he said. “(Those are) things the kids don’t have any control over, and it’s up to the (school) system to figure out how to connect with those kids, and every kid needs a way to connect with the education system.”
While Chestnut grew up in Schenectady and went to Linton High School, his kids grew up while he and his family lived downstate. He said he can see the big picture of the district’s operations even if he doesn’t have kids in the schools.
“Whether or not you have kids in the district, at the board level you aren’t thinking about your kids, you are thinking about 10,000 kids,” he said.