New York schools have long had a reputation for being some of the best in the country, but the reality is that success comes with a price tag districts are now being asked to trim.
Gov. David Paterson released some preliminary budget proposals in November that would affect funding for programs from kindergarten to post-graduate levels. School districts are now scrambling to decide which programs are necessary and which ones will have to be put on the back burner until the recession wanes.
According to the governor’s office, every district in the state will see some type of budget cut in 2009-2010, from 3 percent to 13 percent of the total budget. State universities and colleges are considering tuition hikes, which could affect a student’s option of going away and living off campus.
Many area districts are reaching out to their communities early in the budgeting process to find out residents’ education priorities.
Mohonasen Central School District created an online survey about those priorities. So far, according the district’s communications department academics, those responding to the survey are saying they want to preserve electives and technology programs.
Like many districts across the state, we are bracing for a difficult budget year, Superintendent Kathleen Spring said. `We know that we will have to make some tough decisions, and before we do that we want to reach out to the community to hear their concerns.`
Budget forums are a new part of the Mohonasen budget process. Each forum is scheduled to highlight a different aspect of the budget. Other districts are looking at similar forums as a way to gauge what the public is willing to stomach as far as cutbacks to their children’s educations.
Local districts are also getting creative, with some looking at four-day weeks and consolidating buildings.
The Schenectady City School District extended its school day by a half-hour last year, and Superintendent Eric Ely said while a four-day week is probably not an option for them, consolidation is. The city is looking using a middle school building to merge Howe Magnet with its Central Park Middle School, creating a centralized kindergarten-through-eighth-grade building. The change would then save the district on energy and transportation costs.
One thing that could be affected by cuts is the number of teacher’s aides in the classrooms. Guilderland remains one of the only area districts that still has aides in many of the kindergarten classrooms.
`Cutting back on staff, such as aides, has a huge effect on instructional success. I liked the fact that there was an extra pair of hands in my daughter’s classroom,` said Guilderland mom Tara Attanasio.
Guilderland Superintendent John McGuire said the district stands to get $2.7 million less in state aid than it received for 2007-2008. He said that reductions in all areas are imminent but eliminating entire programs is not. The district plans to hold informational meeting and discussion groups throughout March. McGuire said district officials know they cannot put too much of a burden on already cash-strapped taxpayers.
`Right now, we are working internally to see how we can ensure meeting the needs of all our 5,300 students,` said McGuire. `We are working really hard to balance the reductions we make.`
McGuire said staff reductions are a possibility, but some programs may continue to grow, such as special education programs.
In Scotia-Glenville, a program new this year, Brite Beginnings, will add to more students next year. The program is for autistic elementary-age students and is held at the Glen Worden Elementary School. The program currently has four students and could possibly expand to eight next year.
Special Education Teacher Lois Long said she is grateful they were able to obtain the funding and offer a program that allows students to integrate into the traditional school setting.
`It’s amazing to see the changes in these students. We are very thankful we have had this opportunity,` said Long.
Scotia-Glenville will probably see cuts of a few thousand dollars in state aid. Superintendent Susan Swartz said what that means for the districts is that the possibility of adding new programs or expanding current ones disappears.
`We have to nurture and take care of the programs that are in place,` said Swartz.
In Saratoga County, the Burnt Hills Ballston Lake district is also holding community forums as a way of tackling the budget by gaining insight from parents and taxpayers as well. The forums take an in-depth look at the governor’s proposals, which could lead to cuts close to $3.6 million for the district. Superintendent Jim Schultz said in a statement that staff reductions, as well as cuts in services and programs will be inevitable if the budget is passed.
Administrators across the Capital District said they are aware that this is not the only year they could see decreases in aid, and they are already anticipating the same for 2010-2011.
The governor’s office issued a statement in December regarding the budget cuts, saying New Yorkers must understand there is no alternative given the dire straits of the economy. Paterson also encouraged residents to remember this is not only about New York, but also about the entire country.
`New York is not alone in a budget crisis,` Paterson said. `But if the United States is the epicenter of a global financial meltdown, New York is the focus of our financial woe.`
There is one bright point for schools. Under President Barack Obama’s proposed stimulus package, Capital District schools could receive a much-needed $84 million over the next two years. According to the U.S. Department of Education, if approved, that money could come as soon as April.