Niskayuna school district struggles as budget gap grows
State aid below hopes; residents resist cuts to programs they like
NISKAYUNA What Niskayuna school officials had whittled down to a $36,000 gap in the 2012-13 budget has swelled to a half-million-dollar deficit because of lower-than-expected state aid and restoration of positions.
The district found out last week when the state budget was approved that Niskayuna schools are getting about $327,000 less in aid than had been expected.
Superintendent Susan Kay Salvaggio told the Board of Education Tuesday that based on its feedback, she has made some revisions to the budget. This includes restoring one teaching position at Rosendale Elementary School because of enrollment. Also, Salvaggio said the board has received an outcry of email over the proposed elimination of the Explorer’s academic enrichment program for elementary students. She is now only proposing to cut one of the two teachers, not both. The remaining teacher will be focused on math, science and technology enrichment and would work with the regular classroom teacher.
Also, she added sections of courses at the high school such as environmental science and Latin, based on student interest. She also added back in the summer school technology staff, which helps train teachers on new technology. The total cost of all the program restorations is nearly $185,000.
The budget, which stands at close to $76 million, would still eliminate close to 80 full-time equivalent positions.
On a more positive note, Salvaggio reported that the district’s administrators, directors, unaffiliated employees, assistant superintendents, human resources administrator and herself agreed to increase their contribution to their insurance premiums from 25 percent to 36.5 percent at a total savings of $48,000. In addition, Salvaggio is not taking a raise this year. Salvaggio said conversations are continuing with all the unions.
Board member John Buhrmaster suggested approving the budget with her revisions, increasing spending to the tax cap, and have the superintendent find a way plug the gap. It was a well-thought-out plan, he said. “All of our children are going to lose some opportunity, but they’re still going to have that Niskayuna education.”
Other board members were uncomfortable voting until they knew how the budget hole would be filled. The board plans to hold a special meeting on April 16 at a time and location to be announced to vote on the budget.
Speakers commented mainly on the proposed combination grade classes in some of the schools.
Parent Susan Polsinelli said she started an online petition with more than 40 signatures at Hillside Elementary School, where one of her sons is in kindergarten this year. She especially worried about her other son who will be starting kindergarten in the fall.
“He’ll already be with first-graders, learning in a vastly different environment, trying to keep up,” she said.
Deb Shea, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said the New York State Education Department helped the district compile some studies about multi-age classrooms, which found that they had negligible effect — positively or negatively.
“Effect on student learning depends more on the quality of instructional practices than the structure of the classroom,” she said.
Also, Salvaggio clarified some recent reports regarding discussions with Schenectady County Attorney Chris Gardner on the idea of changing to a federally subsidized Medicare program for its retirees. School officials do not believe that Niskayuna could save $1 million through the program as claimed, because the district is currently in a self-funded plan. Retirees pay 27.5 percent of the cost of the plan.
School officials say the district saves $400,000 to $500,000 annually through the self-funded plan and is estimated to save another $125,000 next year through contracting directly for prescription drugs.
“We’re using what our retirees pay us in terms of premiums to help fund the program for our active employees. That has kept our costs down,” she said. Any change would have to be negotiated with the unions, Salvaggio added.