Niskayuna school district would need nearly 7 percent levy increase to preserve positions

Some board members want to go for it

Categories: News, Saratoga County, Schenectady County

NISKAYUNA — A pair of Niskayuna school board members on Tuesday indicated they would support a nearly 7 percent tax levy increase to preserve district staff positions, an increase projected to cost homeowners an additional $325 a year for a home valued at $250,000.

Board President Howard Schlossberg has suggested he wanted to move forward a budget that preserves all staff positions, During Tuesday night’s board meeting he reiterated his view that “we’ve got to keep everyone.”

But keeping every position funded in the budget would mean a tax levy increase of 6.7 percent, according to a budget presentation during the meeting. Schlossberg found some support on the board Tuesday, but the majority of board members have not indicated how large of a tax levy increase they would support.

“I’ve been pretty straightforward on that; I’ve been asking for that since the beginning,” Schlossberg said in an interview Wednesday. “I don’t know how much support there is for that on the board or in the community.”

Board member Kim Tully at Tuesday’s meeting backed Schlossberg’s call to fund every position, noting the board was choosing between the “lesser of two evils” in weighing how much to raise taxes and how much to reduce staffing. She also said the district has spent the past few years restoring positions that had been cut during that Great Recession, and “it’s hard to swallow the fact that we would have to touch any of that.”

“I know me, personally, I would gladly pay more in taxes to keep every single teacher employed,” Tully said during Tuesday’s meeting.

The brief discussion of boosting the tax levy – the total amount the district collects in local property taxes – came after district officials presented the board the most detailed picture yet of an emerging budget proposal.

The primary budget scenario outlined Tuesday envisioned a 4.09 percent levy increase – still well above the district’s 2.19 percent state tax cap (requiring 60 percent voter approval under current law) – and the elimination of just over the equivalent of 22 staff positions. At the 4 percent levy increase, school taxes would increase around $200 a year for a home valued at $250,000, according to district projections.

While the numbers are still in flux, district spokesman Matt Leon on Wednesday said the budget cuts presented Tuesday would be through the elimination of vacant positions and 15 layoffs of current employees. Those numbers could still change, he noted. 

The budget included the use of some reserves funds as well as a salary freeze for Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. The eliminated staff positions included the district human resources director and the district director of pupil personnel service, which oversees special education services, both top administrative positions.

The potential budget presented Tuesday included the elimination of nearly 14 teacher positions spread across grade levels and subjects but likely landing with the greatest impact at the high school, which could see a reduction of about 10 teacher positions.

The high school would have to limit the classes it could offer students and limit the number of sections of classes that it offered, limiting academic choices for students and lifting high school class sizes.

“It means there will be fewer offerings for students and larger class sizes,” Marie Digirolamo, assistant superintendent for instruction, said during Tuesday’s meeting.

The high school reductions would touch art, business, math, ELA, physical education, science, social studies, technology and world languages, according to the budget presentation. The budget also included elimination of a high school guidance counselor, which would increase the caseloads of the school’s other counselors.

Student board representatives during the meeting lamented the cuts and said that many of the courses that would be affected play a major role in the development of students.

“These classes and these teachers make a really big impact on students’ lives,” Selwa Khan, student board representative, said during the board meeting.

The numbers used in Tuesday’s budget presentation, though, may turn out to be more optimistic than the funding the district ultimately receives from the state, district officials said. State officials plan a budget review that ends April 30 – the first of three reviews throughout the year – that could result in further funding cuts in state aid to districts. How much less funding is anyone’s guess, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo this week suggested education funding cuts could be as large as 20 percent if Congress doesn’t approve more federal stimulus funding directed to state governments. The prospect of a 20-percent reduction in state aid to Niskayuna could cost the district as much as 29 more positions, according to projections included in the budget presentation.

After the budget presentation, board members pressed for an across-the-board pay freeze for administrative positions and asked officials to continue searching for budget savings in outside contracts and other expense categories.

District officials plan to continue fine-tuning the budget in the coming weeks, holding off on a board adoption until the state provides more clarity about funding levels and the timing and logistics of getting a budget across the finish line.

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