NISKAYUNA -- The leaders of organizations representing the teaching assistants, nurses and other support staff in Niskayuna schools argue they haven't been sufficiently included in budget discussions as district officials finalize plans to eliminate dozens of staff positions.
The heads of four employee groups, not including the teachers union, wrote a letter to the school board earlier this month pushing back against the difficult financial projections district officials have cited as forcing staff cuts. They argue that Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra has carried out this year's budget planning with little communication or collaboration with employees.
“We are perplexed and astonished by the superintendent's claim that our district is on the brink of a financial disaster,” the union leaders wrote in a May 4 letter sent to members of the school board.
The Niskayuna Teachers Association has also struggled with working with Tangorra on potential concessions to save the district money, said Mary Eads, the association's president.
Carol Ann Townsend, president of the Niskayuna Education Support Personnel Association, which represents paraprofessionals, teaching assistants and other classroom support staff, and Carol Werblin, president of the Niskayuna Nurses Association, in an interview Tuesday said it has been nearly impossible to communicate with Tangorra or get information helping them understand the district's financial situation
The employee groups, which refer to themselves as NEST, Niskayuna Employees Standing Together, had raised a litany of concerns about Tangorra's leadership style last spring. In the letter, they formally rejected a proposal from Tangorra to freeze their pay in an effort to save the district money. Tangorra plans to freeze his salary under next year's budget.
The union leaders said Tangorra sent them copies of a draft agreement freezing staff salaries late in the day on a Friday in late-April with no explanation of how much the agreement would save the district or what that would mean for the employees they represent. They said they have been unable to get questions answered and had not gotten a chance to meet with Tangorra as of Tuesday.
Townsend and Werblin argued that the employees they represent are already underpaid – new nurses would make around $30,000 to $35,000, and Werbrlin said she makes about $60,000 after three decades on the job. They said that agreeing to a pay freeze would set them further back during an economic downturn. But without more communication from district officials, the union leaders said, negotiating concessions is close to impossible.
“Without him saying this is going to save all of these jobs, it's really difficult for us to say we are going to take a pay freeze,” Townsend said.
Eads, the president of the Niskayuna Teachers' Association, said she has been in communication with Tangorra throughout the budget process but that he has altered plans after she thought they had reached an agreement. The teachers' association agreed to a retirement incentive earlier this budget season, Eads said, but after Eads thought they had agreed to terms, Tangorra said he only wanted to allow an incentive this year if at least nine teachers agreed to retire. Only five teachers agreed to retire, so the incentive plan fell through. The original incentive plan was to cover two school years; then they moved to working on a plan just for just this year, but Eads said district officials offered less of an incentive than the original agreement.
“He keeps moving the goalposts,” she said of negotiating with Tangorra. “We communicate but nothing gets done. I feel like I'm spinning my wheels; every time we come to an agreement it stalls.”
The union leaders all said they don't fully understand why the district faced such a major budget shortfall before the pandemic struck and argued the district has under-spent its revenues consistently in recent years and that it should hold enough in reserve to preserve at least some staff positions.
“Our goal with all of this was not just to look at money, our goal was to maintain the district's outstanding reputation and outcomes of Niskayuna students who go through our program,” Werblin said.
In response to questions about the concerns expressed by the labor leaders, Tangorra released a statement that noted the challenge of bringing people together and developing a budget in these challenging times.
“We have tried to communicate as much about our financial challenges as possible with all stakeholders and place immense value on the partnership with our employee groups,” Tangorra said in the statement. “To the extent that there has been a lack of understanding of how we have arrived at our current fiscal situation, we'll keep working at it.”
When the school board started budget discussions in early March, before schools were closed and board meetings were still held in person, Tangorra outlined the start of a difficult budget season for the school board.
Tangorra said the district had both kept its average tax levy increase over the past five years under 2 percent and added the equivalent of nearly 80 new staff positions since the 2015-2016 school year. But he said that level of investment and tax levy constraint were not sustainable and that the district would likely have to eliminate positions.
Now, the district's problems are only exacerbated by what state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli referred to as a “bleak” economic outlook in an analysis of the state's finances released Wednesday. State officials are expected to announce reductions in state aid to school district by the end of the week, reductions the governor has said could be as high as 20 percent for school districts.
Niskayuna's latest budget draft – the first one that Tangorra has described as his “recommended approach” – accounted for a 10-percent loss in core state funding for the district, about $1.1 million. The draft budget would eliminate the equivalent of 35 full-time staff positions and includes a tax levy increase of 2.15 percent -- the district's tax levy limit. Earlier versions of the budget included a higher levy increase, but Tangorra said the uncertainty around the rules if a district does not win voter approval on the first budget vote drove him to recommend a levy increase that wouldn't require super-majority approval from voters.
Tangorra told the board he had no choice but to start planning for the still-unknown state aid cuts.
“It would be irresponsible for us not planning for a reduction in aid,” he said at Monday's board meeting.
But board members continued to press Tangorra about budget specifics and at times appeared frustrated that Tangorra did not provide details he had previously promised. The board plans to go over its budget in even greater detail on Thursday.