Amsterdam school officials outline cuts to staff, sports and extracurriculars

Districts await possible update on funding cuts Friday

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, News

AMSTERDAM — Amsterdam school district officials are planning a budget that boosts the tax levy 3 percent, eliminates nearly 30 staff positions, trims athletic offerings and slashes all non-athletic student extracurricular activities.

The budget plan, which district leaders outlined for the school board Wednesday night, aims to prepare the district for additional state aid reductions and the compressed timeline to finalize a budget next week while organizing an absentee-only election for June 9.

The budget presented Wednesday would amount to a $1.3 million spending reduction compared to the district’s current year and is a nearly $3 million reduction over the budget district officials first outlined months ago when it looked like schools could count on funding increases.

But the district, like every district in the state, is still flying in the dark, not knowing how much further the state may reduce its funding, when those cuts will be announced or whether those funding cuts will be restored with the help of more federal stimulus.

“We are trying to give you the worst-possible scenario and how we can manage it,” Interim Superintendent Ray Colucciello told the school board.

The latest draft of the budget approximates a 20-percent reduction in state aid, Colucciello and district business official Colleen DiCaprio said. The budget, which can still be altered if the state releases updated aid figures for districts by early next week, would eliminate the equivalent of 28.5 staff positions, including eight layoffs.

As outlined Wednesday, the budget would decimate the district’s extracurricular activities, eliminating all student clubs, the student council and the marching band, resulting in about $85,000 in budget cuts.

The plan also included a $75,000 cut to the district’s athletics budget, which tops $500,000. While officials did not detail the specific athletic cuts, they indicated they were working to minimize the impact on students by focusing on sports with the lowest participation.

Board member Rev. Kent McHeard pressed district officials to work to preserve the marching band program, and other members indicated they wanted to at least see that program spared from elimination.

“I think that would be horrible,” McHeard said of eliminating the marching band program. “I would seriously encourage us to rethink the marching band.”

District officials said they would revisit the marching band cut but suggested it would need to be offset by cuts elsewhere.

The district would also realize savings in the budget by cutting back on transportation of preschool students to local Head Start programs as well as the elimination of transportation for students living in the district who attend private schools outside of the district. The district has been paying to transport around 50 students to a pair of private schools, including the Mekeel Christian Academy in Scotia, at a cost to the district of just over $100,000.

The budget plan calls for a 3-percent tax levy increase, which would come on the heels of multiple years of keeping the levy flat.

The district leaders also braced the board for even deeper cuts, indicating they were planning for the potential of still more cuts that could come during the school year. Colucciello also said they resisted drawing deeper into reserves to help secure the district’s financial footing for a couple of years of difficult budgets.

“Quite frankly, we think this is going to be more than a one-year problem,” Colucciello said. “I’ve said ‘save for a rainy day.’ It’s pouring now, but it may not stop raining in January.”

If the budget is rejected by the community during the June 9 vote, it’s not clear how districts can seek a revote; if the board does not go out for a revote, it would fall back on a contingency budget that would keep the tax levy flat. The district would have to eliminate all athletic programs under a contingency budget.

Districts across the region face the same budget uncertainty and similar challenges to Amsterdam schools. District leaders are working to eliminate positions through attrition, shutting down positions left vacant by retirements, turning to budget reserves, increasing local taxes, cutting programs and laying off educators.

And while officials have started to outline massive cuts, no one knows yet what kind of funding they can count on for next year. The state Division of Budget is slated to send a new round of funding cuts to lawmakers Friday, with districts hoping to see new state aid runs outlining the depth of any new funding cuts by the end of the day.

Signs of the grim situation facing some districts are starting to emerge. Just this week for instance, the superintendent of the Rensselaer City School District across the Hudson River from Albany floated a 24.5-percent tax levy increase as necessary to save the district in the long run.

In Schenectady, district officials have expressed cautious optimism that the district is well positioned to weather the storm without devastating cuts or scores of layoffs. But depending on how deep the state cuts aid to districts, Schenectady officials have outlined up to $7.5 million in possible reductions. While officials think they can avoid layoffs even with cutting $2.5 million out of the budget, if they have to cut more than that amount layoffs become more likely.

If the district has to go much further, such as a $20 million cut, or about 20 percent of state funding, “it would decimate us,” acting Superintendent Aaron Bochniak said at a recent school board meeting.

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