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School budgets approved across region

School budgets approved across region

Most approved by wide margins
School budgets approved across region
Joyce Moreau, a Saratoga Springs School District resident, votes on the school budget May 16, 2017.
Photographer: Erica Miller

School districts' budgets scored widespread approval Tuesday night as dozens of spending plans across the Capital Region sailed through with large margins.

As of 10:30 p.m., no district in the region reported a failed budget vote.

The budgets largely maintain or add slightly to existing programs, but a handful of exceptions exist. In Schalmont and Gloversville school districts officials, for instance, are cutting hundreds of thousands of dollars in programs and staff and dipping into reserves to balance their budget.

On the other hand, Schenectady’s over $7 million state aid increase allows it to expand student services, create over 60 new positions and cut the tax levy by over two percent. Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring has called this year’s budget a “watershed” as “years and years and years of cutting” has given way to serious investments in student services and the first substantial tax cut in years.

[Newcomers win pair of Schenectady school board seats]

“To me this is a game changer,” Spring said Tuesday night, saying the district is in a stronger position to support “preventative” measures aimed at supporting students before they fall too far behind or are in serious academic or social crisis.

Schenectady voters also approved a $64.5 million capital project aimed at renovating elementary schools and improving the high school's basic infrastructure systems.

This year’s school budgets come against the backdrop of the latest state budget in years, but state lawmakers finalized their own budget in time for school boards and district officials to circle in on final proposals with state aid numbers in hand.

Statewide school budgets boosted spending an average of 2.3 percent and lifted tax levies an average of 1.69 percent, according to an analysis by the state Association of School Business officials released earlier this month. Just 12 districts statewide put up budgets asking voters to approve tax increases above a district’s tax cap, none of which are in the Capital Region.

The Capital District, according to the analysis, has spending increases on average of 2.22 percent, bolstered by an average tax levy increase of 1.62 percent. And the region is one of the few areas in the state expecting higher enrollment next year – an increase of 0.43 percent.

In Schenectady schools, this year’s spending plan boosts spending 4.26 percent, while cutting the tax levy by $1.1 million, or 2.04 percent. The plan establishes a general education “continuum” that will focus extra services on struggling students who don’t qualify for special education, while also expanding student electives, ramping up training and mentoring for teachers, and growing the district workforce.

The district plans to boost overall staff by 66 positions, including around 40 teachers and seven social workers and school psychologists. Each of the district’s three middle schools will receive a third assistant principal.

The Scotia-Glenville schools budget lifts the district’s tax levy 3.61 percent to accommodate a new part-time guidance counselor and boost spending on social studies and a handful of BOCES career and technology programs. The budget establishes an “elementary skills” class for six special needs kindergartners who would otherwise be placed in programs outside the district. The new class costs over $225,000. The district budget plan increases spending 2.6 percent. Voters approved it with 73 percent in favor.

In Niskayuna, voters approved the $81.4 million budget and school board newcomer Jennifer Zhao unseated incumbent David Apkarian. Board President Rosemarie Perez Jaquith was re-elected. The spending plan maintains student programs and allocates funds to add five full-time teachers, add a second year of Chinese language classes at the high school level and adds funds for elementary teacher professional development.

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Schalmont schools had one of the tightest budgets in the area, cutting $800,000 in programs and drawing on another $800,000 in reserves. The plans raises the tax levy 1.45 percent – the district tax limit. After considering boosting taxes to preserve more spending or reduce the use of reserves, the school board decided to keep the tax increase within its cap. Even though the budget increases overall spending, the district has to cut two teaching positions, reducing spending on BOCES programs, cull extracurricular and school supply budgets, and consolidate bus runs. Voters approved that budget with nearly 67 percent in favor.

The Gloversville schools budget also trims programs, including eliminating four high school teachers and reducing spending on BOCES programs as a result of sliding enrollment. A plan approved earlier this year to reconfigure district schools in the light of sliding enrollment is expected to save over $850,000, largely through staffing reductions. That budget was also approved by wide margins.

Johnstown schools are looking to reduce spending by shifting some health insurance costs to employees and adopting an energy conservation plan.

But widely across the region, districts found themselves in a position to support restorations of previously-cut positions or add and expand programs. Ballston Spa is reinstating unfilled positions, including a full-time orchestra and technology teachers. Schohaire is establishing a new reading intervention program aimed at students in fourth through eighth grades. Cobleskill-Richmondville is maintaining spending despite raising its tax levy less than 1 percent, while also expanding some field trip allowances, summer programming and boosting classroom technology.

Voters in the Shenendehowa Central School District approved it $169 million budget. With around $47 million in state aid, the district plans to hire more faculty, including elementary school teachers at buildings that have higher enrollment numbers as well as a high school math teacher.

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