Schenectady school officials are prepared to pony up as much as $2.5 million in reserves to boost teacher staff and student programs in lieu of specific state aid numbers as budget negotiations at the Capitol remain unresolved.
Superintendent Larry Spring presented the school board with a range of different budget scenarios Wednesday night, reflecting the uncertainty the district faces as it and all districts across New York await a final state budget and final state aid numbers.
Spring presented the board with five different potential budgets, ranging from one that adds a little over $1 million in new programs and cutting $260,000 in the district tax levy to increasing programs by over $7 million and cutting the levy by $3 million.
“The difficulty of budgeting right is we have a very wide range of possibilities,” Spring told the school board.
The low-end scenario is based on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s January budget proposal; the high-end scenario is based on another $700 million over the governor’s budget in foundation aid, the state’s core education funding formula.
The board members agreed they were willing to put up to $2.5 million in reserves as a planning stopgap, so district officials can plan for at least that much in new programs.
“It’s to continue making progress in the district, is the way I see it, rather than going backward,” Board President Cathy Lewis said.
The district has until April 21 to pass a final budget, which goes up for voter approval on May 16. But since the district schools are out for spring break that week, Spring said he is reluctant to hold a substantive meeting then and at least one board member said she would be out of town. That puts a tentative budget approval on April 12.
The different budget scenarios, detailed with the number of new teachers and staff and other programs that could be added at different funding levels, were essentially random guesses in the middle of where the district’s state aid could end up.
“We have thrown darts on these,” Spring said of the different budget scenarios.
But those darts exemplify the stakes at play for Schenectady schools in the ongoing budget negotiations – which if anything appeared to take a step backward Wednesday night, according to news reports. If the district is only able to add $2.4 million in new services, that represents eight new teacher positions and eight other staff, along with over $350,000 in other expenses. At the highest end of possible outcomes – a $10.5 million increase in foundation aid for Schenectady – the district could add 52 teacher positions, 23 other staff and over $1 million in other expenses.
At the $2.4 million level, the district would establish two elementary “respite” rooms, which give students on the cusp of falling well behind intensive support; add a third assistant principal at each of the three middle schools; form a mobile crisis team with a psychiatric nurse that could respond to mental health emergencies at schools; boost middle level math support; and add a high school music teacher.
On the high-end of the budget spectrum, those new supports would be joined by a major investment in redesigning part of the special education program; adding three new cultural brokers, community members who work with students in the schools; increase reading teachers at the youngest grades; expand electives for high school students and more.
The potential tax cut also ramps up the more the district gets in state aid. If the final district budget adds around $2.5 million in new programs, the levy – the total amount collected in local taxes – would be cut by about $260,000, according to the proposal. If the district is spending as much as $7 million on new programming, it may cut as much as $3 million in the levy.
School officials admit they are likely to end up somewhere in the middle, but without a final budget in Albany, Schenectady school officials are still partly in the dark as they work to develop their own budget.