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What you need to know for 07/22/2017

Schenectady school board seeks ways to cut $5.6 million

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Schenectady school board seeks ways to cut $5.6 million

Millions of dollars have flowed into the Schenectady City School District this week — but the distri
Schenectady school board seeks ways to cut $5.6 million
From left, Phil Steck, D-Colonie, Angelo SantaBarbara, D-Rotterdam, and Schenectady schools Superintendent Larry Spring held a press conference at Schenectady High School on Wednesday to discuss school aid.
Photographer: Stacey Lauren-Kennedy

Millions of dollars have flowed into the Schenectady City School District this week — but the district is still millions short for next year’s budget. And that means elementary art and music are still on the chopping block.

After the state aid, promised funding from the city’s two assemblymen, and a proposed 1 percent tax increase, the Schenectady school district still has $5.6 million to cut.

The school board spent a grim evening looking through a list of increasingly painful cuts Wednesday and made no final decisions. The board will meet again at 8 a.m. Saturday in the High School Commons.

Superintendent Laurence Spring didn’t defend the proposed cuts.

“It’s going to be really tough,” he said. “These are all sacrifices.”

He also said he was still holding out hope for “the cooperation of other folks” to get additional savings.

He wants school officials to work on reducing energy usage and to minimize the use of substitutes, saving perhaps $150,000. But, he said, he couldn’t yet be sure that either item would happen.

“We haven’t given up,” he said. “There are some items we cannot do unilaterally.”

Board member Cheryl Nechamen asked if the district had time to negotiate agreements with teachers this month — before the budget is due.

Spring said he’d try.

“There is some possibility there,” he said.

In the meantime, he asked the board to choose among other cuts, including reductions in elementary school art, music and gym and middle-school home economics and technology classes.

In response to a complaint last week about cutting art and music but not athletics, he proposed cutting all athletics, for a savings of $320,000.

Cuts were organized by level of sacrifice. The gentlest cuts totaled just $1.7 million — less than a third of what the board needs.

And that included some controversial items, such as maximizing class sizes at Schenectady High School, reducing science labs there and eliminating under-enrolled electives.

The second level of cuts was also not enough, totaling $1.2 million.

The biggest cut in that level would be halving the teacher coaches, for a savings of $500,000.

Those cuts would also include eliminating the magnet programs, including elementary school foreign language.

Spring said students who had those classes didn’t seem to learn much, and did about as well in middle-school language as students who didn’t get lessons earlier.

“My hope is the elimination of foreign language at the elementary school is not noticeable,” he said.

The magnet cuts totaled $215,000.

There were some positives: One cut would allow students to substitute an elective for a core class. Journalism or filmmaking could count as English 12, for example.

Spring said that change “shouldn’t have required a budget crisis.”

The gentlest cuts also included administrative cuts in the central office and business book room, for a total of $140,000.

At the start of the meeting, teachers, parents and students packed the Mont Pleasant Middle School cafeteria to protest the proposed cuts.

One student played his violin to demonstrate the value of starting lessons early in elementary school. (One cut would start orchestra and other music programs in sixth grade, rather than fourth.)

Sixth-grader Thaisnely Valentin urged the board to let younger students play instruments and sing in chorus.

“We’re asking you to give us the same opportunities you had,” she said, adding that music is important to her.

“Music is like my outlet to an imaginary place where everything is good, almost like heaven,” she said.

Many residents said the board shouldn’t cut arts and music because they are the “jewels” of the school district.

They noted that the district is well-known for its excellence in fine arts and that the reputation has been touted in efforts to sell houses in the city.

“One of our core strengths has been the fine arts,” said Jennifer Gensinger-Bee, adding that she bought a house in Schenectady partly because of that reputation.

“Taking these away … people will leave,” she said.

Several others also spoke in favor of middle-school technology classes, which would be reduced under state minimums in a proposed cut.

Two librarians also attacked the proposal to replace elementary school librarians with aides.

Librarian Donna Phillips described her new “sounds in motion” program, which this year helped three times as many kindergartners learn all their letter sounds by January.

“If you take out the professional librarian and try to replace it with a para, the results will not be amazing,” she said.

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