Students turned out in droves to make their voices heard at the Schenectady school board's budget meeting Saturday morning. Bowling team member Joseph Davis, 17, left, and football team member Anthony Goodwin, 16, brought a sign to let the board know their point of view.
SCHENECTADY With funding for arts, music and sports up in the air, Schenectady schools Superintendent Laurence Spring introduced an idea Saturday that could keep all school programs going — raising taxes as much as 3.69 percent.
Such a move would allow the district to close a now $1.37 million budget gap, and painful cuts such as cutting all co-curricular activities and reducing kindergarten to half-day would be off the table.
Many residents would also be reimbursed with a rebate equal to the tax increase under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recently approved tax freeze plan because the increase is within the state tax cap’s limits, Spring told hundreds of people who filled the high school’s commons for a Saturday morning budget workshop.
“One of the things that we have to think about is that any increase in taxes that we levy will be reimbursed to STAR-eligible homeowners, so that’s not everyone, but it’s certainly the majority of people,” he said. “And so, to that end, it is I think to some degree an incentive from the state to tax up to the cap.”
The so-called “level three” cuts that could be used to balance the Schenectady City School District budget are:
• Reduce full-day kindergarten to half-day — $1.42 million
• Eliminate elementary librarians — $400,000
• Reduce K-6 music — $390,000
• Reduce K-6 art — $417,000 (down from $620,000)
• Reduce K-12 gym class — $400,000
• Eliminate all co-curricular activities, including sports — $630,000
• Reduce middle school technology class — $380,000
• Reduce middle school home economics class — $400,000
• Reduce aides — $180,000
• Close the pool — $60,000
Total: $4.68 million
The budget gap has already come down from where it was at Wednesday’s work session, when it was $2.6 million. The board used about $200,000 in projected health care savings, $500,000 in yet-to-be-spent grant funding and increases in projected revenue to reduce the gap, Spring said.
“As you get closer and closer to the end of the year, you have a better understanding of how much money you’re going to expend,” he said.
School board President Cathy Lewis suggested a 3 percent tax increase, which would account for $1.04 million of the deficit.
She said most of the remaining gap could be closed by including Spring’s proposed “behavioral changes” that now add up to $305,000 in savings, an increase from earlier this week when Spring estimated that the savings would be no higher $170,000. The savings would come from better scheduling of substitute teachers and voluntary reductions in the use of refrigerators and space heaters.
“If we were to pass this kind of budget, we need support from the citizens and taxpayer of this community to pass this budget,” Lewis said.
She then paused for effect, and applause broke out among the crowd.
Schenectady resident Jennifer Wagenbaugh said she would support higher taxes if it meant saving co-curricular activities.
“There’s a lot of stuff that goes on, and school is stressful enough,” said Wagenbaugh, who has a son in ninth grade at Schenectady High and two older sons who graduated from the district. “And they need that extra activity to get that stress level out.”
High school senior Kristen St. Andrews, captain of the varsity lacrosse team, said she would support higher taxes, too.
“If parents have to pay a little more, I think that if they understand what they’re paying for, they shouldn’t have a problem with it,” she said.
Toward the end of the three-hour meeting, the 17-year-old sat in front with her teammates, holding up signs expressing what their sport meant to them.
Her sign read “PERSERVERANCE.”
“It’s important that we have sports teams, and music, and other programs, because people who do not have a family life at home do have a family inside their team and inside their extra-curricular activities,” St. Andrews said. “I really think that’s important for people in this community, especially Schenectady High School.”
The board plans to look at what cuts would be needed for tax increases ranging from 0 to 3.5 percent when it meets in the high school auditorium at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Looking at the effects of a 0 percent tax increase will show the district what it would face if voters don’t pass the budget.
The most drastic cuts being considered, “level three” cuts, total $4.68 million, including up to $1.42 million from a new proposal to reduce full-day kindergarten to half-day.