NISKAYUNA — A divided Niskayuna school board adopted a $93 million budget proposal Tuesday night that will go up for voter approval May 18, a budget that includes a 1.17 percent increase to the local tax levy – at the district tax cap.
Board members during Tuesday night’s virtual board meeting split 4 to 3 as they adopted a $93 million budget for next school year that would eliminate about 13 positions — about half of which would be unfilled positions and the others are determined based on student enrollment and needs — while adding a smaller number of new positions. The additions include an athletic supervisor, a typist, a special education teacher and boosting time funded for a director of technology.
A handful of members raised concerns about cutting any educator positions at Tuesday’s meeting, about a week after the board appeared to reach a consensus to back the proposal recommended by Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr., which included the staff cuts. Board members Kim Tully, Greta Jansson and Howard Schlossberg all spoke up against backing a budget that eliminated staff positions during the discussion and voted against the budget motion. Board members Brian Backus, Sarah Rogerson, Noney Grier and Jennifer Zhao voted in favor of the budget.
“There was never a full and robust discussion of what would be required to maintain our current staffing, nor what a budget with no tax increase might look like,” Tully said before her no vote. “It is my obligation to assure that proposed staffing cuts will have no impact on students.”
Tully on social media on Wednesday morning noted that while she opposed adoption of the budget on Tuesday she planned to vote for its approval at the ballot in May, because of the harm a contingency budget would cause if the community rejected the budget.
The budget would restore a 10-week health seminar for ninth-graders, which covers a variety of topics important to transitioning to high school and had been lost to budget cuts nearly a decade ago. The class was seen as an important bridge between middle school and health classes that high-schoolers don’t take until their junior and senior year. Topics to be covered in the class will include mental health, time management and risky behaviors.
The cuts include just over six positions that will be eliminated through attrition after retirements and other departures; another roughly six positions would be eliminated due to enrollment levels in certain places in the district and other fluctuations in student needs.
Hillside Elementary parents wrote in at the start of the meeting to share concerns that the cuts would include decreasing a section of first grade at the school for next year, juxtaposing a cut to a teaching position with the decision to create a new athletic administrative position.
“You should not be adding sports-related things to the budget if you cannot afford the teachers you already have,” one of the writers said. “Get your act together.”
Tangorra said the district could use part of its forthcoming federal aid to restore the third section of first grade at Hillside, keeping the budget proposal in tact but also refilling the position.
“We can use those funds from the federal dollars that we have to restore that position and still go out with the budget that’s been presented,” he said.
The board backed that approach to restoring the position, which would create class sizes of around 15 students instead of over 20 students. But board members also cautioned against viewing the decision as setting a new precedent on elementary class size, highlighting the current extraordinary circumstances in education.
Niskayuna is in line to receive a major increase in state aid next school year after lawmakers set out to fully fund in three years the state’s foundation aid formula, which aims to direct state education money to districts based on need. Niskayuna, which has received around half of what the formula says it should get in state aid and has seen small increases in recent years, is set to receive a 16% increase in overall state funding for next school year’s budget, rising by $3.75 million.
But Tangorra last week expressed deep skepticism that state lawmakers would ultimately make good on a promise to fully fund a key state aid formula by the 2023-2024 school year.
“I’m beyond skeptical. I’ve been here before,” Tangorra said last week, referring to the history of the funding formula, which was established in 2008 and became consistently underfunded within a few years.
State lawmakers this month increased foundation aid funding by $1.4 billion statewide and wrote into law a commitment to fully fund the formula by the 2023-2024 school year. It’s possible lawmakers will back off the promise due to future financial constraints, but it’s the furthest lawmakers have gone in the direction of making good on the formula. If lawmakers do come through, Niskayuna would see foundation aid increases of over $3.1 million each of the next two school years.
“I’m extremely skeptical of those increases going forward to the point I do not believe that money will materialize,” Tangorra said.
Board members last week came to a consensus to back Tangorra’s recommended spending plan, which will go up for voter approval next month, but they didn’t determine the tax levy increase to propose to voters. That consensus, though, fell apart after board members said they had more time to consider the budget proposal in the ensuing week.
The district’s state tax cap is 1.17%, but board members had discussed asking for an increase closer to 2% to maintain its fund balance for next year’s budget. Ultimately, the board backed the 1.17 percent tax levy increase, which means a simple majority of district voters will be required to approve the budget next month.
The public vote will take place on May 18 at Niskayuna High School from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.