Full-day kindergarten was on the chopping block for Schenectady schools as the district looked for ways to close its budget gap, but an increase in state education aid for the 2014-15 academic year makes that unnecessary.
Schenectady City School District Superintendent Laurence Spring said he should be able to tackle the district’s budget deficit without having to cut into its kindergarten programs.
“Essentially, this means our budget reductions are going from a gap of $10.3 million to about $6.1 million,” Spring said. “I feel safe in saying the additional aid will allow us to take kindergarten off the table, but it doesn’t ensure that other programs will not be touched.”
In the 2014-15 state budget, Schenectady schools are to receive $102.4 million in total school aid, compared with $96.5 million last year. Spring said that reduces the district’s deficit but the school board must still look to arts and music programs to cut costs.
Schenectady has cut $30 million over the past three years, which Spring said has forced the district to make tough decisions about educational opportunities for its students.
“We’re talking about an increase in aid that’s about a tenth of what we deserve,” Spring said. “We have looked at arts and music, but everything is on the table.”
The Schenectady school board is meeting this week to discuss its 2014-15 budget plan. By April 24, the board must adopt a budget proposal for the public to vote on May 20.
For the 2014-15 academic year, Niskayuna schools will receive $18.8 million in total state aid and Duanesburg will get $6.6 million. In Saratoga County, Burnt Hills will receive $19.8 million, Ballston Spa will get $27 million and Saratoga Springs about $30 million.
Patrick McGrath, superintendent of the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Central School District, said his district will receive a 2.6 percent increase in aid compared with last year. The $500,000 boost will allow the district to nearly eliminate its $600,000 budget gap.
“This is what we were projecting and we won’t have to cut programs or have staff layoffs,” McGrath said. “But the scenario is not stable in the long run for our budget.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders reached a budget agreement Friday night that will increase school aid by $1.1 billion, or 5.3 percent, over the previous academic year.
Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk, D-Duanesburg, said Monday that the increase in education aid among some districts in the region is still not enough to stave off cuts.
“While I am pleased to see education aid increased beyond what the Senate leadership would appropriate, I have conferred with school superintendents in my district who believe that for some schools, the increase will not forestall layoffs and educational programming cuts,” she said.
The budget includes $340 million for universal pre-kindergarten, with $300 million of the funding going to New York City. The state plans to spend a total of $1.5 billion over the next five years to fund universal pre-K.
The budget also is proposing a $2 billion bond act to bring technology into New York schools and build pre-K classrooms; it will come to a vote by state residents in November.
The nearly $140 billion state budget also includes an estimated $1.5 billion in property tax relief for homeowners whose local governments stay within the 2 percent tax cap previously imposed by the state.
These governments also have to come up with a plan to share services and cut costs. Local governments that have already established a cost-savings plan will receive a credit from the state.
Gary McCarthy, mayor of the city of Schenectady, said efforts have been ongoing to consolidate services in the area. Discussions include merging dispatch centers among municipalities in Schenectady County and sharing water and sewer systems in Scotia, Niskayuna and Rotterdam.
“The big focus now is getting our consolidated dispatch center up and running, which will have some long-term savings and increase efficiency and delivery of services,” McCarthy said. “We would like to build on those successes and continue to look to do things in a more cost-effective manner. We will be looking at everything we can do to cut costs.”
The budget also includes bills that have significant local impacts. Among them is a 27 percent increase in video lottery terminal host aid for the city of Saratoga Springs and Saratoga County.
Republican state Sens. Kathy Marchione and Hugh Farley praised the funding increase as an “important victory” that will provide local governments and taxpayers with additional revenue for hosting VLTs.
Under the Aid to Localities Appropriations Bill, Saratoga Springs will receive a total of $2.3 million, a nearly $500,000 boost over last year. Saratoga County will get about $775,000, $166,000 more than last year.
“Securing a 27 percent increase in VLT host aid is important for Saratoga Springs and Saratoga County,” Marchione said. “This is good news for our communities and will help relieve some of the pressure on local government and local taxpayers.”
Another local item in the budget is an expansion of the Empire State Film Production Tax Credit.
Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, says the expansion will help to attract more production companies to the area and could lure a film studio to Galesi Group’s former Alco site in Schenectady.
“An expansion of this incentive for production companies to set roots in Albany and Schenectady counties is a great way to boost the local economy,” Santabarbara said. “We already know production companies are interested in our area, and tax credits could be the difference maker between moving here and creating jobs or setting up operations in another state.”
The Mount McGregor Correctional Facility in Saratoga County, which is slated to close this July, will be designated as a tax-free zone under Cuomo’s business tax incentive program called START-UP NY. Expanding, out-of-state and start-up companies will be able to locate there tax-free for 10 years.