A tiny crowd came out for Schenectady’s school budget hearing, and only one person spoke.
After the contentious meetings last month, at which public comment often lasted for hours, the hearing was somewhat of an anticlimactic event.
The one speaker, school board candidate Thomas Hodgkins, acknowledged that his words would not have an impact. It’s too late for the board to change the budget before the vote on May 21.
But he said he still wanted to be heard.
“I think we could have done better,” he said of the budget.
He criticized the cuts to pre-K — fewer children will be able to enroll in full-day preschool — and the increased class sizes for students in kindergarten through second grade.
“Class size is significant, has significant impacts on achievement,” he said, citing studies. “So I have concerns this budget will harm students and cost us more in the long run.”
School board member Ann Reilly said afterward that to some extent, she agreed with him.
But, she said, the district had to make cuts because it did not receive enough state funding.
“I don’t believe they’re the cuts we would have made if we had had the funding,” she said. “I know they’re not.”
Teachers union president Juliet Benaquisto said that everyone involved in the budget process knew that the cuts would not help children. She said that no one made the decisions lightly — but that cuts had to be made somewhere.
The $159.3 million budget includes a 1 percent tax levy increase, which was used to avoid proposed arts and music cuts.
For the owner of the average Schenectady house, assessed at $101,000, the increase would be $22.45, for a total tax bill of $2,198.
Among the biggest and most controversial cuts in the proposed budget was a change in special education. The board decided to eliminate 76 aides and use that money to retrain teachers while also hiring reading specialists, psychologists, social workers and other experts to help special education children “catch up” with their peers.
At Mont Pleasant Middle School, the board agreed to offer just seven classes per day, rather than eight. The change gives students more time in each class but created a scheduling nightmare for those who wanted to take two music classes. After much discussion, school officials created a split lunch schedule that would allow students to fit in an extra music class.
At the elementary schools, the board decided to increase class sizes, adding an average of one student to each class. The change reduces the total number of teachers needed in the district but means that K-2 students might be in a class of 25 students and older students could be in classes of 30 students.
The board also decided to close the Blodgett school, which housed pre-K programs. Those will be relocated, but fewer full-day slots will be offered.
In total, 137.5 jobs were eliminated. After new positions were added — mainly the reading specialists and other experts — the district would lose 105 positions in the proposed budget.
If the budget is voted down twice, the board will have to cut another $522,000 to create a contingency budget.