Schenectady schools will be a far different place next fall if cuts proposed Wednesday go into effect with the next budget.
The budget would cut 115 aides from special education classrooms, lay off about 51 teachers, increase class sizes at every level, and possibly cut art and music instruction in kindergarten through second grade.
And that was just the beginning.
In a two-hour presentation, Superintendent Laurence Spring proposed $8 million in cuts, largely to pay for raises and pension increases in the $157.7 million 2013-14 budget.
The board will discuss the issue again on Apr. 10 at 7 p.m. at Mont Pleasant Middle School, and may vote on its budget Apr. 17 at Schenectady High School.
Spring had hoped for a significant increase in state aid, but the district got just $350,000 more in the final state budget proposal. That’s “a teaspoon in a bucket,” he said.
Even though he did not get much additional aid, he told the school board that Schenectady must spend more money. The students need more reading specialists.
Based on test scores, he said 6,000 city students can’t read well. That’s more than half of the entire school population.
Yet the district has just 36 reading specialists, who are trained to diagnose and treat dyslexia and other reading problems. Many others were cut in previous budgets.
“This is the crux of the problem we have,” Spring said. “We have thousands of kids that need to learn how to read...and we’ve cut the folks whose job it was specifically to help those kids.”
He also argued that the district sends too many students to special education classrooms for their inability to read or for behavior problems. Only 20 percent of those children ever pass the English Regents, while nearly 80 percent of the regular students pass it.
“We’re not having success with those kids,” he said. “Reading gets kids into — and out of — special education.”
Reducing the number of students in special education could save the district money in the long run, although savings were not projected for the 2013-2014 budget.
may cut aides
He focused on behavioral problems, which he said too often cause the district to assign an aide to a student. Those aides are costly, and the district has 234 of them in special education classrooms. Similar districts have just 78 aides, he said.
He proposed cutting 115 of the aides and replacing them with psychologists and social workers to focus on behavioral problems.
Cutting the aides would save $1 million. He said he would also use part of that money to hire more reading specialists.
But in total, he would only be able to hire 30 psychologists, social workers and reading specialists.
Aides who listened to the presentation shouted out occasionally, disputing the ability of social workers to handle the minute-by-minute behavior problems of students in a classroom.
They also questioned whether 30 specialists could handle thousands of children. Spring said 30 specialists was not enough — but was all the school district could afford.
He acknowledged that the loss of the aides would be hard on the teachers.
“This would certainly eliminate immediate supports teachers are used to having when students act up,” he said.
But he said he would put a full-time psychologist in every building, so students could go to that person immediately.
Union President Juliet Benaquisto told the board that it should not eliminate the aides right away.
“I don’t think we can do this in a year without significantly damaging those children, because we don’t have that skill set” for managing their behaviors, she said.
Other teachers said it was unreasonable to expect them to meet tougher standards while increasing the number of children in their classroom.
Spring said class sizes could rise to 25 for kindergarten through second grade and 30 in grades three through six. Some classrooms are already at those limits, but others are much smaller — and changing that would require the district to move students to different schools.
School board members were deeply unhappy with the proposals, particularly the cuts to art and music.
But board member Andrew Chestnut said, “It is true we are not going to close an $8 million gap without it being painful.”
Board President Cathy Lewis added, “It sounds as if we need to do those.”
Benaquisto called for a tax increase instead to avoid cutting the aides.
“I don’t know how we can sit here and not discuss even a modest increase in the tax levy,” she said.
Board member Cheryl Nechamen said she would support a small tax increase to bolster the cuts to art and music.
But Lewis said a 1 percent tax increase would only get the school about $500,000 — a pittance compared to the $8 million gap.
“It wouldn’t make a real difference,” she said, adding that it could raise homeowners’ taxes by 3 percent to 4 percent.
Benaquisto challenged that, asking for the dollar figures so that the public could determine whether avoiding some cuts was worth the cost.
A 3 percent increase in the tax rate would bring it to $22.19 per $1,000 of assessed value. For the average homeowner with a house assessed at $100,000, the tax increase would be about $65.