The Schenectady school board Wednesday night approved a nearly $219 million budget proposal with no tax levy increase that will go up for voter approval May 18.
The proposal is bolstered by a $14 million spending increase over the current budget, about 7 percent, and includes 39 new staff positions. About $8 million of the budget would fund year-to-year increase in salaries, benefits and other rising costs.
The new positions include:
- 6 elementary classroom teachers, who will be deployed to classes with a large number of students;
- 12 staff to create an 8-period school day at the middle school, increasing scheduling flexibility for students and enabling a special homeroom-like class to support students;
- 5 attendance deans focused on bolstering student attendance, a longtime focus area for the district that has worsened during the pandemic;
- 5 central office administrators to reinstate content-area leaders in the curriculum department;
- 6 positions to expand the district’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion department, including family and community specialist, staff engagement specialist and student engagement specialist, and;
- 5 restorative practices coaches to work on student behavior issues.
The new positions come as the district continues to staff back up after eliminating over 400 positions from the current budget in September, when officials feared they could see a loss of 20 percent of state aid or more. Those cuts never came to fruition, though, and district officials have been working to refill the laid off positions since February.
Officials recently exhausted lists that guide initial rehiring based on who was laid off and staff seniority and have opened some of the positions to outside candidates, interim Superintendent Aaron Bochniak said Thursday. He said the human resources staff, impacted by recent departures, has been working through the process of attempting to connect with staff with “preferred eligibility” for the positions as quickly as possible. They have often reached out through multiple means and not always received a response. He said if people think they should have been contacted for a position but had not, they should reach out to the central office, addressing a concern raised at Wednesday’s meeting.
As they work through refilling the laid-off positions, district officials are also working to develop next year’s staff assignments for the hundreds of teachers currently working in the district. Retirements will also create job openings the district will look to fill for the next school year. Bochniak said he expected the different factors to be “reconciled” soon and said he expected to have a full accounting of open positions in the district by May 10.
“There is certainly a desire to get to that place,” he said of refilling open positions. “We have been hiring as fast as we can.”
The staff layoffs, as intended, generated savings for the district. Bochniak and district business official Steve Zautner at Wednesday’s meeting projected the savings at around $14,250,000 and outlined how much of that money would be invested during the current budget year:
- $500,000 for wifi hot spots;
- $500,000 for personal protective equipment;
- $1.5 million to make a principal payment on capital project debt;
- $3.5 million in technology equipment;
- $950,000 in literacy program materials;
- $1 million for student desks, chairs and replacing other furniture;
- $450,000 in paying out unused vacation and other compensated absences to staff members, including those who were laid off;
- $50,000 to replace musical instruments;
- $100,000 for elementary school art supply kits;
- $1.1 million to a reserve fund for teacher retirement system payments, and;
- $4.6 million in rolling over untouched federal funds that can be used next school year.
At Wednesday’s virtual meeting, Juliet Benaquisto, president of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers, called for investing more money in people who work directly with students.
“What our students will need most to return safely and recover from the pandemic is human interaction, it’s what this pandemic has robbed most from us,” she said.
She also argued the proposed budget could go further in supporting students, noting that six new elementary school teachers would do little to reduce class sizes across 200 elementary classrooms.
Bochniak said the planned investments of the money not spent as a result of the staff cuts were targeted to things that would support students, highlighting long-overdue updates to classroom technology, furniture, and the federal money that can be used to support students next year.
“The investments we made were things we needed for kids that kids would directly benefit from,” he said Thursday.