Schools face harsh fiscal realities State aid cuts would severely affect budgets Page 1 of 3
Publication: Schenectady Daily Gazette; Date:2009 Jan 18; Section:Regional; Page 9
Schools face harsh fiscal realities State aid cuts
would severely affect budgets
BY MICHAEL GOOT Gazette Reporter
Leaving positions vacant, consolidating athletic programs and even closing schools are all part
of school officials’ playbooks as they grapple with potential state aid cuts.
Gov. David Paterson has proposed cutting the amount of education aid districts receive by
anywhere from 3 percent to 13 percent, depending on a district’s wealth and need. The
governor is trying to close a $15 billion shortfall in next year’s budget, as the meltdown on Wall
Street severely shrank state revenues.
Although these reductions are not in effect yet, districts are already preparing to live with
Scotia-Glenville Superintendent Susan Swartz said she is focusing on maintaining existing
programs rather than adding any new initiatives.
“It’s a good year to try to catch our breath,” she said.
Many districts are doing the same. Because most of a school’s budget is personnel, districts
are looking at cutting people.
Superintendent Eric Ely said he was able to negotiate in the Schenectady Federation of
Teacher’s Union contract a $10,000 retirement incentive for administrators. Four have taken
advantage. Also, 11 teachers have given notice of their intent to retire at the end of the year
and will each receive a $6,000 stipend, which was already part of the teachers contract.
This is a cost to the district up front of more than $100,000 but it will save money next year if
those people are not replaced or are replaced with lower-paid employees.
Many districts also said they would consider not replacing retirees. However, that may not be
Fonda-Fultonville Central School District Superintendent James Hoffman said he did a rough
estimate of next year’s budget factoring in the retirees. With increases in health care,
retirement and other costs, the district was still $140,000 over its budget this year. This is even
with not spending any money on supplies.
This past October, Hoffman implemented a freeze on hiring and any spending not absolutely
critical to teach classes. He estimated it would save about $250,000 to $300,000.
However, the governor is recommending a cut of just under $600,000 in the district’s budget
of $25.5 million.
Hoffman said smaller districts like Fonda-Fultonville are at more of a disadvantage when state
aid is cut because it represents a larger percentage of its overall budget.
“If there’s another cut in state aid next year, we’re going to have to cut programs. You can’t
do this multiple years and not cut programs.”
The new fiscal climate is forcing districts more than ever before to prioritize. Paterson
proposes the maximum 13 percent aid cut for Shenendehowa from $37.46 million to just over
District spokeswoman Kelly DeFeciani said Superintendent L. Oliver Robinson had already
implemented a hiring freeze. The district is taking a broad view on trying reduce its $146 million
“How can we cut back across the board, rather than cutting whole programs, rather than
decimating any one program,” DeFeciani said.
The governor has recommended a $3.2 million aid cut for Schenectady. Ely said the district is
re-evaluating every program in its $154 million budget to see if it can be done more efficiently
and less expensively.
With the level of reductions needed, he said it may be impossible to say that any programs
Schools face harsh fiscal realities State aid cuts would severely affect budgets Page 2 of 3
are immune from cuts.
Ely said one objective is keeping class size low, in the range of 20 to 24 students or lower,
but that may not be realistic. “We don’t want to get to where we have 30-32 kids in a class,” he
He also wants to focus on programs for students who need extra help as well as those who
seek additional enrichment. He said it is not fair to protect programs for high-needs students
while cutting them for those at the other end of the spectrum.
At the Saratoga Springs School District, Superintendent Janice White said she will also look at
any district initiatives not state mandated such as summer and after-school programs.
Extracurricular activities could also be vulnerable. Ely pointed out that transportation is the
major expense in sports. For example, if the district has to send three buses to an away game,
each of those buses could cost $200 or more, depending on the distance. While fuel costs are
low now, they are expected to increase in the future.
White said cutting sports and other extracurricular activities would not be a high priority
because they keep children engaged in school. “A lot of research says they do much better
academically when they’re involved,” she said.
In Fonda-Fultonville, Superintendent Hoffman is looking at combining athletic programs, a
hypothetical example being merging a sport’s separate seventh- and eighth-grade squads.
SCHOOL CLOSING POSSIBLE
At least one district is considering structural changes. The Greater Johnstown School District’s
enrollment — now at 1,952 students — has been declining for several years. A committee
studying potential reorganization has reached a preliminary consensus to close the 195-student
Jansen Avenue Elementary School.
Superintendent Katherine Sullivan said she believes this could save about $1 million in costs
next year. The governor is proposing to cut the school’s aid by $568,000 to about $16 million.
“That will absolutely help us with our budget crunch,” she said.
Still, she said, schools need to trim costs — not just now but in the future.
“Could we get by next year — absolutely we could get by. We don’t want to do it year by
year. We want to do long term. I think this restructuring is part of this longrange plan.”
Legislators have remained tight-lipped about how much they support the governor’s proposed
Paterson had asked the New York State United Teachers union to consider reopening
contracts or deferring raises, which it would not do.
This leaves districts in a diffi cult position, Hoffman said. “You’re stuck with what you’ve
negotiated in a different era and the funny thing is, sixth months ago was a different era.”
NYSUT President Richard Iannuzzi said he understands the significance of the state’s fiscal
crisis. However, he said spending in the state is under some reasonable control. “It’s the
revenue side that’s totally collapsed,” he said.
NYSUT continues to push for increased taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers to close the
Iannuzzi cautioned school districts against making radical changes based on the aid amounts
in the governor’s budget, which the union considers to be a “nonstarter.” Also, he said
President-elect Barack Obama’s federal stimulus package could include more aid to schools.
Therefore, districts should not focus on relentless cutting.
“It’s just providing an atmosphere in local districts that isn’t healthy for the community or the
kids they teach,” he said.
MUST ACT NOW
Saratoga Superintendent White said school districts really have no choice at this point but to
assume the worst-case scenario.
“We can’t wait until April 1 to build the budget,” she said.
White said the district had already implemented a number of cost-saving measures. It
participates in a consortium with other schools in the Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-
Essex County BOCES to purchase health insurance and supplies at a lower rate. In addition, it
has a task force studying ways to reduce energy consumption.
Regardless of what the state or federal governments do, school administrators are accepting
the new fiscal realities.
Schools face harsh fiscal realities State aid cuts would severely affect budgets Page 3 of 3
Hoffman said when he hears staff complaining about the budget crunch, he tells them they
need to look at the big picture.
“Everybody understands that the state budget is too large. We need to cut it back. Everybody
thinks you should save it somewhere else. . . . The fact is the money is not there and we all
have to take some of the cuts.”