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Tough Arithmetic

The union and board reached an agreement on Albany’s proposed school budget; voters will have their say on Tuesday

by The Staff on May 11, 2011

In a rare show of cooperation between government and its unionized public employees, the City School District of Albany and the Albany Public School Teachers’ Association reached an agreement early this month that will forestall teacher layoffs and increase classroom hours while eliminating the tax-levy increase that was originally considered necessary to close the projected deficit in the 2011-12 school budget proposal. The agreement came even as anonymous mailers condemning the proposed budget were being sent to local residents, claiming that it would raise taxes 20 percent and urging them to vote no.

The $206.5 million spending plan, up for public vote during the Board of Education elections on Tuesday (May 17), represents months of painful deliberation in the face of reduced funding, mounting costs and growing tension between public and charter schools. But, according to Ron Lesko, director of communications for the school district, it also represents some significant successes.

“The tax levy is the total pool of money that a school raises from taxes,” Lesko said. “This year it’s exactly the same amount that we got from the community last year, and we’re proud of that. There is no increase and there are very few examples of that anywhere in New York state this year.”

Last year, the tax levy grew by 3.87 percent and was compounded by a reduction in state aid to New York State’s Tax Relief (STAR) Program, which provides property-tax exemptions to homeowners. Taken together, the effect was just over a 5-percent increase to taxpayers. This year, STAR aid has increased, and Lesko said that, for some, it adds up to a modest—albeit brief—tax reduction. Property value assessments from the Office of Real Property and Services are expected to result in a 5-percent increase.

“Just like every school district, our state aid was cut,” said Lesko. Add to that the cost of increasing salaries and health benefits for current employees and retirees, and the projected deficit was about $11 million at the outset of budget negotiations.

“In Albany,” he added, “we can never have a conversation about education without also talking about the increasing cost of charter schools in our communities.” In July 2010, Gov. David Paterson vetoed a large piece of legislation, inadvertently resulting in the elimination of a freeze on charter school funding at 2008 levels and adding another $5 million to the $26 million that taxpayers had already approved. “That’s a 20-percent increase in per-pupil tuition for charter schools, while everyone else’s education is being cut,” said Lesko. “It amounts to one-third of local tax dollars going to about 19 percent of the student population.”

The current proposed budget was unanimously agreed upon by the Albany Board of Education on April 12 and amended once the agreement was reached with the teacher’s union last week. “From the very beginning, we knew this wasn’t going to be easy,” said Lesko. “But we are extremely grateful to the teachers for the sacrifices they have been willing to make on behalf of the students.”

The five-year contract agreement has been touted as “a major collaborative effort that puts students first and recognizes the financial pressures facing the school district and the city.” It includes a pay freeze, but zero layoffs, two additional student education days and three additional professional development days for teachers. The $2 million in expected savings allowed the district to eliminate a 1.7-percent tax-levy increase and retain 52.5 teaching positions.

Under the proposed budget, job losses still include four administrators and 34.5 noninstructional staff. Courses with low enrollment will be consolidated or cut, foreign language instruction will begin a year later, and several teaching positions lost through attrition will not be refilled. Approximately $9.3 million from the school district’s unrestricted reserve fund will be used cover a large portion of the deficit, bringing the fund down to $6.1 million—the equivalent of approximately three weeks of payroll.

“The board believes this budget achieves our goals of providing the best possible programs and services for all students while remaining mindful of our community’s financial realities,” said school board President Daniel Egan.

“It was a struggle, and these conversations are always difficult, but we understand the financial climate at this particular time,” says Cathy Corbo, President of APSTA and a teacher at Hackett Middle School.”