With time running short to adopt a budget for next school year, the Niskayuna school board last week again asked Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. to rethink his approach and outline ways to save the jobs of more teachers and social workers.
Tangorra's latest budget presentation, which he called his “recommended approach,” included the elimination of the equivalent of just over 35 staff positions in the district, including 24 positions involved in direct student instruction and two top administrative roles.
Board members pressed Tangorra to consider more cuts to equipment, materials and contracts, with some board members citing specific examples like new software slated to be purchased for the athletics department.
The latest round of cuts Tangorra presented to the board included eliminating elementary school social workers, the equivalent of 2.5 full-time positions, drawing public comments from other educators in the district expressing concern for students.
“We are both shocked and saddened to learn that those being cut are going to be some of the most important support systems for our children as they re-enter our schools,” first grade teacher Ashley Mastrianni and kindergarten teacher Jeff Parisi wrote in comments submitted to the board.
Some board members indicated they agreed with the sentiment. Board member Noney Grier noted that social workers have always been critical for supporting students but that when students return to school after the extended closure, the role of social workers will be more important than ever.
The board is scheduled to meet Monday and Tuesday, with plans to adopt a final budget Tuesday night, as they continue to hash out a spending plan to put up for voter approval in this year’s absentee-only budget election scheduled for June 9.
The district faces a difficult budget year as structural problems connected to years of mismatch between spending increases and tax levy increases were exacerbated by a major drop in state aid due to the pandemic. As the board has weighed a litany of budget reductions, they have pressed to preserve positions, while Tangorra has said the budget hole cannot be closed without some workforce reductions.
Most board members echoed comments asking Tanogrra to lay out what items would need to be cut to preserve staff positions and allowing the board to weigh those trade-offs.
“Let us see what it looks like to keep more staff,” board member Kim Tully said, suggesting there might be purchases that could be put off for at least a year as the districts focused on maintaining as many employees as possible.
Board member Jennifer Zhao suggested there may be a middle ground that seeks to limit direct layoffs of teachers and other critical roles while still eliminating vacant positions.
The plan presented Thursday does preserve the downtown location of the district's “Community Transition” program for older students with disabilities. After district officials proposed eliminating a $30,000 lease with SUNY Schenectady to house the program at the downtown Center City building, families and educators involved in the program pleaded with the school board and district officials to preserve the downtown location. If college campuses open in the fall, the program will return to its downtown home, Tangorra said.
Tangorra acknowledged the proposed spending plan “isn't going to be embraced by everyone,” but argued the budget he outlined at Thursday’s meeting continues to invest in the district’s primary goals and helps prepare for what could be multiple years of financial challenges.
“We have a spending plan that does the least amount of damage in terms of programs and students and is respectful to our taxpayers,” Tangorra said.
2014 grad jumps into school board race
After the board adopts its budget proposal this week, the fate of next school year’s finances will be left in the hands of district residents in the absentee-only election on June 9.
Two open school board seats will also be on the ballot: incumbent Jennifer Zhao is seeking another term and challengers Sarah Rogerson and Tim Brennan are also seeking seats.
A new contender also added his name to the mix before the deadline to “self nominate” for a spot on the school board ballot.
Ron Sandroni, a 2014 Niskayuna High School graduate, jumped into the school board race on a fiery platform to constrain taxes, halt a planned capital project and “restore integrity” in a district he said has been damaging its reputation through mismanagement at the board and administrative level in recent years.
“When I look at Niskayuna in the news nowadays, I see my old teachers are still doing their jobs, working hard, and then you look at the administration and school board for the last four or five years and it feels like they have been embarrassing the institution,” Sandroni said in a Friday interview. “It’s not really about politics for me, it’s about restoring integrity to my alma mater.”
Sandroni, who said the district was at its “zenith” around the time he graduated, argued the district’s national rankings and reputation have slipped in recent years. Naming a handful of current school board members he is looking to serve with, Sandroni accused a “self-interested clique” of controlling and politicizing the district for personal benefit.
“It’s just nonstop bickering, it’s controversy, no one is doing their job, they are just trying to promote themselves,” Sandroni said.
He proposed a moratorium on new tax increases and said upon election he would move to stop the progress of a capital project that could cost as much as $70 million and district officials are hoping to put up for voter approval by the end of the calendar year. Sandroni argued district facilities were updated when he was a student and that they shouldn’t need the major overhaul districts officials have called for.
“Nothing has happened in the last 10 years that we need to drastically change our schools,” Sandroni said.
Sandroni, who went away to earn his degree from Clarkson University but has moved back home to the Glenville part of the district recently, also cited his experience as a student as unique among the board candidates.
“Myself and most of the other board members are there for different reasons,” he said. “I’m there to protect the taxpayer and fight to protect the Niskayuna experience I grew up with; other board members aren’t there for that reason.”