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School’s Out . . . Of Money

A decline in state aid and the continuing charter-school burden will force Albany schools to enact painful staff and program cuts

by Darryl McGrath on March 29, 2012

Dan Egan of the Albany City School Board

When the Albany School Board members gather for tonight’s meeting (Thursday, March 29), they will face a task that board President Dan Egan calls painful and even sickening: deciding how many people will lose their jobs because of a $7 million budget shortfall.

No one will be spared. Sixty administrators, teachers and even support staff—who are often the lowest-paid employees in a district—all face layoffs.

Layoffs are a last resort, part of a budget process that Egan says has become unimaginably difficult. After the layoffs are decided—and depending on the final funding numbers from the state, which were not known as of this writing—next on the block may be sports programs, the purchase of textbooks, and the staffing of technology programs that help the school system operate more efficiently.

“We’re just getting our guts torn out,” Egan said. “We’re eating our seed corn. It’s not a sustainable situation.”

Egan had high praise for the district’s administrators and teachers for putting the children first. Two years ago, administrators gave up their raises; last year, teachers did the same. Also last year, Albany teachers volunteered to add five days to the school calendar to better accommodate additional instructional time and professional development—an act that Egan called “a great gesture.”

Egan said he is baffled by the public bashing of teachers and their union benefits, because he sees only cooperation and a spirit of everyone doing what’s best for the students in Albany.

“The responsibility here is on the state of New York, and they keep cutting and cutting,” Egan said. “Probably at least 80 percent of the school budget is state mandates. So when they do that, and cut our aid, it really puts a squeeze on us. And I’m really proud we didn’t close any schools last year and we’re not going to close any this year.”

The district has lost more than $10 milllion in state aid in the last three years. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal for Albany schools in the new budget is $74.4 million. The state aid for the 2008-09 school year was $85.8 million. The district may gain an extra few hundred thousand dollars in the final shake-out of the funding, but overall, the numbers are grim, Egan said.

Superintendent Ray Colucciello said the board is trying hard to keep the new budget under the limits imposed by the state’s property-tax-cap law. In Albany’s case, the budget increase cannot be more than 3.05 percent. Each 1 percent increase in taxes brings in about $1 million to the school district—money that it desperately needs—but the board recognizes that Albany taxpayers are also at their limit, and the goal is to stay well under the tax-cap mandate.

“This is a very difficult budget,” Colucciello said. “In addition to the cap, we’re also wokring in the third year in a row with significant layoffs. We’re at 250 now over the last three years.”

Stacked around these numbers is the Albany board’s frustration that a measure that would have reduced the district’s obligatory per-student payment to charter schools in the city failed to make it into the final budget. That measure would have kept the per-student payment at the 2009-10 rates of $11,700 per student. Instead, the Albany schools will pay the current rate of $14,000 per student. With about 2,200 of Albany’s 10,600 students in the city’s 11 charter schools, that’s an annual base payment of almost $31 millon.

The total charter school cost to the district is closer to $36 million, because of the district’s obligation to cover certain costs for transportation, special education and health services such as school nurses for the charter schools, said Ron Lesko, the Albany schools spokesman.

“Charter schools got a 20 percent increase last year,” Egan said. “I’d like to see what they did with that increase. Did they hire great teachers? Did they start new programs? Did they take students on a field trip to Washington?”

Tom Dunn, a State Education Department spokesman, said in response to Egan’s comments about the charter-school payment that “the public schools in New York state are funded by state aid. Charter schools and district schools are both public schools.”

Assembly Majority Leader Ronald Canestrari (D-Cohoes), Assembly member Jack McEneny (D-Albany) and Sen. Neil Breslin (D-Albany) had been strong backers of the measure to hold the per-student payments at the lower levels. Canestrari said Wednesday that he intends to introduce a separate bill after the budget dust settles that would again try to reduce the payments. It can be difficult to do a separate bill after the budget is concluded, but Canestrari said this is a critical issue for Albany.

“It was a big disappointment,” Canestrari said of the measure’s failure to make the final budget. “The executive position on the charter schools was so strong that we couldn’t get it through for Albany. But I’m not going to give up. I think it’s important for us in this house to take a position.”