CAPITAL REGION — School districts have started to detail budgets for next school year that raise local tax levies and impose tough cuts to slash vacant positions, rein in contractual expenses and, in some places, lay off teachers.
But education officials and advocates worry those cuts could be just the beginning.
State budget officials are expected on April 30, or soon thereafter, to detail a new round of state funding cuts based on a review of the state’s finances. Gov. Andrew Cuomo this week sent shivers throughout the education world when he suggested state education aid could be cut by as much as 20 percent as he implored federal lawmakers to insist aid to states be included in the latest federal stimulus bill. It was not.
Local district officials have started mapping out how they might weather a massive hit to their revenues, while striking a cautious tone as they await actual numbers. They hope to have numbers in time to finalize budgets next month.
“I don’t know how much of that may be posturing and how much of that is the reality of where we are going to be in two weeks,” Tim Hilker, Saratoga Springs assistant superintendent for business, said of Cuomo’s comments during Thursday’s school board meeting.
Hilker said district officials had started to compile a list of options for addressing another hit to state aid but said it would be irresponsible to outline those options until the district has more details. He said cuts could range from tens of thousands to millions of dollars.
“I feel like we have established ourselves well to prepare that if the worst happens we aren’t going to be lost and scrambling for answers,” he told the school board.
Like other districts in the region, Saratoga has narrowed down its budget for next year based on mostly flat state funding, finding cuts and savings and pulling from reserves to cover growing personnel costs. Board members, with some dissent, coalesced around a 3.1 percent tax levy increase, just under the district’s tax cap. The Saratoga Springs budget, as it stands prior to any additional state aid cuts, includes over $1 million in spending reductions but doesn’t include layoffs, Hilker indicated during Thursday’s meeting. But the district would have to consider layoffs if state aid is further reduced, he said.
In Schenectady, school district officials have signaled they don’t expect to have to lay off staff.
As in other districts, Schenectady City School District officials are planning for a worst-case scenario while awaiting the specifics of what they will actually have to deal with.
“We have to be patient and certainly our preparation and planning will take into account some of those deeper cuts that could happen,” Kimberly Lewis, the school district’s business official, said at Wednesday’s meeting. “We also have to just wait and find out what those numbers are going to be.”
Even before another round of funding cuts, districts across the region have been grappling with financial difficulties that both predated the COVID-19 pandemic and have been exacerbated by a sudden halt to the kinds of funding increases districts have relied on in recent years.
In South Colonie, district leaders have detailed a budget gap of over $3 million and outlined staff reductions of the equivalent of nearly 40 full-time positions, according to updates posted on the district website. The district said it expects about three-quarters of those positions can be eliminated through retirement but that layoffs will likely be unavoidable. Albany and Troy school district have both outlined major staffing reductions as well.
In a Friday letter, Troy Superintendent John Carmello outlined the district’s challenging budget situation, which he said will include a reduction of 25 staff positions. Those positions include reading specialists. Carmello said positions could have been saved and layoffs avoided if all the district’s bargaining units accepted a pay freeze and health care changes he proposed; only the administrative unit accepted the deal, he wrote.
He said the district was not to blame for the budget challenges and noted that there may be more cuts to come that could devastate the district’s programs.
“Even more of a concern is that we might not be out of the woods just yet,” Carmello wrote. “The talk from the Governor’s Office is that more cuts to education funding are looming and, depending on the level of those cuts, our programs could be decimated, making our district completely unrecognizable.”