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Trickle Down

Albany school district struggles with the governor’s proposed budget cuts

At least three dozen teachers in the Albany Public Schools will lose their jobs come June, the first wave of 99 positions to be eliminated in the district next year in the face of a statewide budget crisis that Superintendent Raymond Colucciello calls a “catastrophe” for public education.

“We’ve always said, ‘We don’t have ample resources,’ but this time we really mean it,” Colucciello said as he geared up for the May 18 vote on the school budget after a final public forum on the $203 million proposal. “I said to the board, ‘When we get through this, we will know what we value.’ ”

Gov. David Paterson has proposed statewide funding cuts of more than $1.7 billion to public schools to close New York’s budget gap, and Albany schools would be cut by $6.7 million under that plan. With no state budget in sight, the school district has to go with what it knows, and the resulting Albany schools budget proposal is a painful exercise in snipping a little here and shaving a little there so as to preserve as many of the existing programs and services as possible.

The result: The school system is operating with considerably less money than it is used to. This year’s budget proposal is $1 million less than the previous year, and $4 million less than two years ago.

Going: at least 36 teachers, a number that may increase as school system administrators calculate the number of year-end retirements against the need to cut 99 positions in the 2010-2011 school year. The 99 positions do not mean that 99 people total will lose jobs; attrition and retirements may cover several dozen of those cuts.

“The educational program in this district is going to come through relatively intact,” said School Board President Dan Egan. “A lot of people had to lose their jobs, and that’s a tragedy.”

The layoffs are the main reason that the Albany Public Schools Teachers’ Association has opted not to publicly support the budget proposal, said union president Cathy Corbo. The local is encouraging people to exercise their right to vote and has sent postcards to that effect to all members of its statewide affiliate, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), who live in Albany.

“We’ve never publicly opposed a budget,” said Corbo, whose local represents 860 school system employees. “This one—it was very difficult for our members. We’re losing a lot of people.”

Also going: Latin language instruction; pre-kindergarten art, music and physical education instruction; and pre-kindergarten transportation to the magnet schools. Band music will begin in fourth grade instead of third, and librarians will be reduced systemwide.

Staying: reading teachers and literacy and math coaches; full-day pre-kindergarten; after-school and extended-day programs; summer school, which is often one of the first targets in budget cuts; and school-based health centers at Giffen Memorial Elementary School, Philip J. Schuyler Achievement Academy and Sheridan Preparatory Academy.

The budget juggling act also extends to the school tax levy, which this year is projected to be $107 million. That’s an increase of 3.87 percent. For the owner of a house assessed at $100,000, with the state’s School Tax Relief Program (STAR) reduction, that will mean an estimated school tax bill of $1,272 and a $79 increase over this year.

Shaving the budget even further to get the tax levy increase below 3 percent would have meant more job cuts, Colucciello said—a move the district was unwilling to make. If the Legislature restores any of Paterson’s proposed cuts to K-12—which the Assembly has pledged to do, but not the Senate—then the school district in turn has pledged to use the first $1 million of restored funds to reducing the tax levy.

If voters reject the budget, the district can offer it for a second vote, or it can go directly to a “contingency budget”—which would be only $469,000 less than the district’s proposal. After a round of public forums on the budget, Egan is cautiously optimistic that Albany voters will realize how tough this year has been.

“I do think this is the best possible budget we could get to,” he said. “The economy worldwide has not been this bad since the Great Depression. So the fact that we’re even coming through this with a relatively whole district is a miracle.”

The district held its last forum on the budget at last week’s school board meeting, and the mood of the packed meeting room was supportive. Alex Streznewski, co-president of the Albany City Council PTA, stood to urge voters to support the budget, as did Marlon Anderson, a West Hill resident who regularly attends school board meetings and often comments on public school issues.

“We understand the need for the cuts,” Streznewski said. “We feel the Legislature has failed to provide for our children.”

After the meeting, Anderson said that one of the reasons he could support the budget, despite the painful cuts, was because of the way that the district presented it to residents. The even-handed, open and empathetic tone that district struck in explaining the cuts should encourage voters to meet the board and superintendent halfway on the budget, Anderson said. “I predict it will go through on the first vote.”

—Darryl McGrath

The school district will schedule last-minute forums on the budget for churches and community groups up to the May 18 vote. To schedule a forum, please call the superintendent’s office at 475-6010.


Anton’s Show

Photo: Chet Hardin

After failing to convince his colleagues on the Common Council that they should take up his cause and pass legislation banning the use of exotic animals for entertainment in Albany, freshman Councilman Anton Konev (left) took to the streets to protest the animal cruelty that he says is routine practice in circuses. On Friday, he joined more than a dozen fellow animal-rights activists in front the Times Union Center to try to spread the word to the thousands of people visiting the Ringling Bros. Circus that the animals are trained through years of strict confinement and discipline, and with rough handling that they argue constitutes abuse.

 

 

 


Photo: Alicia Solsman

Where Good Friends Meet (To Help Each Other Out)

A sign on Tess’ front window reads “Out of the ashes ‘Lark Tavern’ will rise again!” one week after a fire gutted the beloved Madison Avenue restaurant, watering hole, and performance venue. Around 4 AM last Thursday, firefighters responded to a report of smoke and flames emanating from the kitchen and were able to extinguish the blaze without it causing any injuries to tavern staff and before it could cause significant structural damage to the 1877 building. Still, the back dining room was destroyed and the front barroom suffered smoke and water damage, which will keep the Center Square institution shuttered for at least four months. The cause of the fire has yet to be determined.

Since then, the Lark Street community has quickly rallied to proprietor Tess Collins’ side. Business owners have accomodated her request to find shifts for her approximately 30 out-of-work employees. As of Wednesday, the Lark Tavern Fire Fund, initiated by Bombers and Wolff’s Biergarten owner Matt Baumgartner, had raised more than $21,000 to allay the costs of reconstruction. And a fleet of benefit events have been scheduled for the coming weeks.

(One potentially complicating factor in the future of the tavern is that Collins, who owns the Lark Tavern business, does not own the building.)

On May 22, the Washington Park Lakehouse will be the venue for Rockin’ to Rebuild, a concert and silent auction organized by Jasen Von Guiness of the Albany Society for the Advancement of Philanthropy. Afterward, there will be an art auction at the Marketplace Gallery, organized by Samson Contompasis, whose gallery suffered a similar fate last year only to rebuild with community support. On May 24, Poets Speak Loud, the long-running Lark Tavern poetry open mic, will move to Valentine’s for a special benefit evening. And on June 10, Michael Eck is organizing A Night at Tess’ Lark Tavern, a benefit concert at WAMC’s Linda Norris Auditorium, featuring the tavern’s “house bands” Jim Gaudet and the Railroad Boys, Keith Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble, MotherJudge and “The Best Damn Open Mic Ever!” Band, and the Ramblin’ Jug Stompers featuring special guest Bryan Thomas.



Loose Ends

-no loose ends this week-



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