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School budget draws voters to Pine Hills Elementary

May 15, 2012

by Jaired Crofut


City residents vote on school budget at Pine Hills Elementary School Tuesday

Voting traffic mid-day dragged at the Pine Hills Elementary School Tuesday, one location where taxpayers weighed in on the 2012-2013 school district budget.

“It’s a little slower than normal,” said Catherine Cutting, board clerk  for the city school district. “We’ll wait ’til around past dinnertime, when people are out of work.”

The low turn out may have been because of little opposition to the budget voiced during the weeks prior to today’s vote.  The lack of public discussion has been a cause for concern for school board members.

“There’s not a lot of negative comments directed toward the budget, in the weeks we’ve been out talking with folks about the budget proposal. And that’s actually one of our concerns frankly that it doesn’t sound like people are feeling too negative about it but we want to make sure that those who feel positive about it don’t shrug it off and do go out and vote,” said Ron Lesko,  spokesperson for the Albany city school district.

In an effort to get people out and voting, city residents received numerous emails and reminders. In addition the Board of Education offered numerous public forums for concerned citizens to come in and openly discuss the budget.

Despite the seeming lack of opposition toward the budget, even though the board could have raised the budget as much as 3.05 percent, some residents still think that the 1.5 percent increase in the tax levy is too much.

“The country is in awful shape,” said Nellie Berzin, 80, of Pine Hills, who voted to turn down the budget.

Other citizens such as Jill Lorenzo, 35, of South Main Avenue expressed a more positive outlook. “I’m concerned about hiring effective teachers. I feel that if the budget passed more teachers would be hired, therefore the children would have an opportunity for a better, more intensive education.”

Although the budget will not impact the Pine Hills Elementary school, it will eliminate a total of 73.4 positions throughout the city school district. Of those, 38.4 will be regular or contractual positions, while the other 35 will be substitute positions. Five of the positions to be cut will be teaching jobs, meaning increased class sizes for some students.

Still, the words “increased class sizes” sounds misleading. What is really being proposed by the Board of Education is not as dramatic as some may think. It is likely that class sizes will be increased to about 16 to 20 kids per class, and not 35 or 40 as some may expect.

At Albany High, fewer electives are expected to be offered.

“The biggest negative impact on our students and programming is going to be in Albany High school, some elective courses that have low enrollment, maybe seven or eight kids signed up for the them, we won’t be able to offer them those kinds of classes next year,” said Lesko.

Up until a few years ago, the Albany school system offered students the chance to study foreign languages from as early on as pre-kindergarten. Now, because of budget cuts, students don’t start learning foreign languages until the sixth grade.

The decision to cut teaching jobs for the coming year will largely be based on seniority. It is likely those decisions will be made this June.

“It may affect your building, it may not affect your building,” said David Mc Calla, principal of Albany High School. “Our district needs are what you’re voting on today, you’re not voting on a particular school.”

Since the start of the recession, state aid to public education has been cut by about $3.2 billion and until about four or five years ago the Albany district received about $10.5 million more in state aid.

Every year, public schools are given a budget by the state and the elected officials who run the board of education are expected to figure out how to spend that money appropriately. Funding for education comes from three sources; state aid, local property tax, and a small portion of federal aid called title 1 and since the growing trend in New York State has been to shift the financial burden of paying for education from state aid to the local property tax,  the amount residents pay for public education is going to increase.

Many renegotiated teacher contracts include less than a 1 percent salary increases, according to Carl Korn, a spokesman for New York State United Teachers. Still, in Albany many are identifying salary increases as one of the many reasons why the budget is going up.

“It’s like any school district, 70 percent of our expenses are related to employment and benefits and those are the costs that are driving the majority of our expenditure increases just the like the other school districts,” said Lesko.

Albany teachers agreed to a salary freeze for the current school year as part of a five-year contract.

Charter schools are also causing headaches for School Board administrators.  Albany has the highest percentage of charter school students in the state. This year the district will spend more than 35 million dollars on Albany’s 11 charter schools, all of which are privately operated and supported by taxpayer dollars.

About four or five years ago Albany had $25 million more in federal aid to the district.

“I do think that city wide, with the exception of Albany High, we’ve been able to manage another difficult school year,” said Lesko. -30-


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