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What you need to know for 08/23/2017

School aid increases may avert budget cuts

School aid increases may avert budget cuts

Schenectady district envisions reduced taxes
School aid increases may avert budget cuts
Students in the Schenectady High School library during an after-school program.
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ

School districts finally know what they will have to work with as they finish budgets over the next two weeks.

And in Schenectady, a boost in state aid has the superintendent promising one of district's most "substantive" tax cuts in years, with an over $15 million increase in state funding and a $7.5 million increase in foundation aid. At those new funding levels, Superintendent Larry Spring said, the district will be positioned to trim its tax levy -- the total amount collected in local taxes -- by as much as $2 million, a 1 percent to 2 percent cut. 

"It's going to mean significant additions to services for our kids and it's going to mean a substantive reduction in the tax levy," Spring said Saturday as he was working through the specific aid numbers and starting to zero in on a full budget proposal to make to the school board on Wednesday.

RELATED: State foundation aid increases for Capital Region school districts

State lawmakers reached agreement on a budget early Saturday morning, which boosts overall state education funding by $1.1 billion and increases the state's core education funding formula -- foundation aid -- by $700 million. A little over $100 million of the overall education aid is earmarked not for next school year but for future years.

Under the deal, districts across the region will see at least a 2.7 percent increase in foundation aid and as much as a 10 percent increase, which should shut down talk of many of the cuts superintendents have threatened as lawmakers struggled to close the deal.

The final budget agreement, which the Assembly approved Saturday and the Senate was scheduled to take up Sunday, comes just days before many districts are planning to take up final budget proposals to adopt ahead of an April 21 deadline and May 16 public votes. As those deadlines approached, district officials raised the specter that budget uncertainty could result in tax increases, cuts to academic programs or a need for districts to borrow from budget reserves.

On Friday, Cobleskill-Richmondville Superintendent Carl Mummenthey warned the district community in a letter that without a final state budget district officials would be forced to cut $200,000 from its draft budget, using the governor's original budget proposal instead.

"Absent much needed funding commitments from our state's leaders, [Cobleskill-Richmondville] will work to reduce expenditures and prepare a balanced budget," Mummenthey wrote. "All of these cuts will impact our ability to fulfill our vision: to graduate all students prepared to pursue their hopes and dreams."

But when aid numbers came out at around 2:30 a.m. on Saturday, Cobleskill received enough funding to cover the $200,000 in threatened cuts.

The Schalmont Central School District, which received about a $100,000 increase in foundation aid under the governor's original proposal, scored a larger-than-expected 5.4 percent increase -- the second largest increase of districts in Schenectady County. Some of that increase -- just under $400,000 in more foundation aid this year -- can be used to avert the more dramatic program cuts and tax increases the district's superintendent and school board have discussed this budget season. In a statement Saturday, district officials said they were planning to keep their tax levy increases at its tax cap, a 1.46 percent increase. In earlier discussions, the board had considered a tax increase of 2 percent or more.

"We recognize the circumstances our families are facing, and we will still provide the best education possible to our students with the resources we have available to us," Superintendent Carol Pallas said Saturday in an email statement.

But the district will still need to find around $800,000 in budget reductions as it finalizes its budget, Pallas said by email. "The increased aid helps but not nearly enough to offset reductions if we stay at our cap, which we now aim to do," she said.

As Schenectady school officials finalize their budget, they will be working from a list of priorities and potential budget scenarios presented to the school board last week. Spring said he expected the district would be able to add around $5 million in new student services. At that level, the district will be able to add dozens of new staff and expand teacher training and curriculum development.

While the specifics are still being finalized, the additions could include new elementary English teachers, math teachers at the middle levels and both a dance and music teacher for the high school. The middle schools are looking to each add a new assistant principal and Spring has expressed a desire to hire someone to oversee the district's capital project as it closes out one project and, with voter approval, transitions to a new project. The plans also call for hiring a psychiatric nurse to lead a mobile crisis team that could respond to mental health emergencies at different schools, and an addition of new speech pathologists and school psychologists.

While at the rate of the last two years it would take Schenectady schools more than seven years to get funded at the level spelled out in the foundation aid formula, Spring said the district has made progress over the past two years and is in a stronger position to bolster students services while also providing residents tax relief.

"This will be the first year we can give real substantive relief to the taxpayers," Spring said.

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