After years of false starts, the school district and the city government are finally planning to share services to save money.
New Councilman Thomas Della Sala broached the discussion slowly over the course of a year of casual lunches with his former boss, Superintendent Eric Ely.
“I’m trying to build bridges. If they save money, we save our taxpayers money,” he said after Ely agreed to discuss consolidating a laundry list of services. “It was one of the recurring themes of my campaign to share more with the county and the schools, and with the schools I thought I had a better chance than most.”
Della Sala worked for the district for 35 years, first as an English teacher and then as the K-12 coordinator for English Language Arts and library media services.
Karen Corona, school district spokeswoman, said the negotiations began at Della Sala’s urging. But she added that he began pushing for shared services at the right time.
“Right now we have to do everything we possibly can to cut back and save the taxpayers money,” she said.
So far, the district and the city have agreed to consider consolidating four major services, all of which would save the schools money but are unlikely to immediately help the city government.
Commissioner of General Services Carl Olsen said the consolidation is still worth it.
“Our taxpayers pay school taxes. The school district is a very big part of that tax bill,” he said. “And I really believe there’s a possibility we could save money here.”
In past years, both sides have proposed sharing services, but the talks fell through. In 2006, the relationship between the two entities took a turn for the worse when Mayor Brian U. Stratton told residents to complain to the school district about their tax bills. He was holding the line on city taxes, he argued, while the schools were spending too much.
Stratton was so sensitive to the anger over the Schenectady tax bill that he cut apart a poster-sized dollar bill to illustrate that the school district accounts for 51 percent of every resident’s taxes, before STAR exemptions or city fees. He also told the district to start collecting its taxes itself, a move that turned out to save both entities money but also led to harsh words on both sides.
In the meantime, the city and county began a shared-services agreement that is now saving the city more than $1 million a year, primarily in vehicle maintenance.
HISTORY OF SUCCESS
Given that history, Olsen said he was delighted when Della Sala told him the school district wanted to negotiate shared services.
“It’s extremely exciting to be having the conversation. It’s long overdue,” he said. “The work we’ve done with the county began as a conversation.”
So far, he said, he’s told the school district he may be able to reduce its sewer and water main repair costs by loaning out the robots the city bought to find cracks and clogs in city pipes.
“There’s no reason we couldn’t offer that to them,” he said.
The schools might also benefit by piggybacking on the city’s purchasing power, he added.
The city may let the schools use the city’s fuel pumps, allowing the school district to benefit from the city’s lower cost of fuel. The district pays market price now because it doesn’t have fuel pumps, so it can’t buy low-cost fuel on state contract, Olsen said.
The district may also achieve a savings of scale by consolidating two other purchases: salt and copier paper. The salt purchase, however, would have to wait until the city builds its new salt shed. The current shed is too small to hold salt for both the city and the district.
The city might make its snowplowing more efficient by consolidating sidewalk plowing, Olsen added. The school district could apply for a state shared-services grant to buy a sidewalk plow, which would allow city workers to clear paths for students more quickly on winter mornings.
Olsen is also holding out hope for significant savings in waste collection. The school district runs its own trash collection and recycling program, but Olsen believes he could make their operation far more efficient. In return, he wants the district to emphasize recycling.
He’s hoping students who are trained to recycle every container and scrap of paper will take their good habits home with them.
Olsen is trying to ramp up recycling in the city to reduce the city’s $2 million annual landfill bills. Last year, the city paid $66 per ton, and the fee is projected to rise next year. An increase in recycling could save the city significant amounts of money.