The City School District of Albany is currently crafting its budget for the 2014-2015 fiscal year. As of this writing, the district faces a projected deficit of $5,829,454. This is the product of the combination of expiring grant funding and a sixth consecutive year of insufficient state aid. That is largely due to the “Gap Elimination Adjustment”, designed to close the state’s budget gap starting in FY 2010-2011. Although the state may end up with a budget surplus of $2 billion this year, it is yet to be seen whether this money will trickle down to school districts. Short of this, Albany CSD has two options to resolve their budget gap.
One option is simply to raise its revenues to match expenditures. This would require a tax levy increase of 5.21%. However, state law requires that for any planned tax levy increase above 0.935%, the budget would have to be approved by at least 60% of the city’s electorate in the May 20 vote, as opposed to the usual 50%. Clearly, no city would ever see 60% of its voters approve a tax levy increase that large.
The obvious solution thus is to cut district expenditures. To that end, the district has drawn up a series of proposed tier reductions. Each tier’s cuts are designed to reduce the necessary tax levy increase to a specific level; tier I cuts would reduce the levy to 2.30%, tiers I and II combined to 1.90%, and tiers I, II and III to 0%. The tier I cuts, currently projected to total $3,257,500, are designed to produce “the biggest bang for the buck”. These are big ticket cuts that are designed to be as far away from the classroom as possible. Among these are (mostly) uncontroversial proposals such as administrative reorganization and eliminating positions that are currently grant-funded. While these cuts would affect the equivalent of 44.3 full-time positions, they are overall unlikely to produce major uproar if implemented.
It is when one reaches the tier II proposals that major problems arise. Only four reductions are included in this tier, totalling $451,200. However, two of these are cuts that would have major impacts to popular but under-enrolled academic programs at the high school. These are two programs offered almost exclusively at Albany High School, that were among the “unique opportunities” that encouraged yours truly to enter the public school system instead of staying in private school: the International Baccalaureate program and Chinese language. Despite serving as major draws for the district, and proving immensely beneficial to the students who participate, the standing proposal is to completely phase these programs out by the end of the 2015-2016 school year. This is despite the fact that the projected 2014-2015 FY savings are only expected to be a combined $109,200, just 0.049% of the currently proposed $223,192,096 budget.
District Superintendent Dr. Marguerite vanden Wyngaard was asked about the cuts at a local neighborhood association meeting on March 11. She explained that the lack of pathways for students into these programs encouraged the district to propose their phasing out, although she stated that she did not wish for the cuts to come to fruition. Speaking in terms of sustainability regarding the IB program, “Dr. V” (as she is affectionately referred to by residents) stated that the district should focus on expanding opportunities for Advanced Placement courses, many of which are already close to over-enrolled. She also touted the hoped-for expansion of “University in the High School” programs, partnerships with local institutions of higher education. In addition, while recognizing that knowledge of a second-language is increasingly important in today’s global economy, she emphasized that no one can definitely determine which languages should be taught. She also pointed out that the district currently does not begin foreign language classes until grade 7, while most studies show that they should begin much earlier to actually be effective. These responses left some in the room unsatisfied.
The most draconian cuts of all are the proposed tier III cuts. The most prominent of these are a trio of million dollar proposals: returning to an eight-period day (as opposed to nine) in the middle and high schools, eliminating all home school coordinator positions, and cutting the district-wide hall monitor staff by a third. Such cuts would have immeasurable negative impacts on student opportunity and support structures. These, combined with the other proposed tier III cuts, amount to 69.7 full-time equivalent positions and $4,821,800 in savings.
Albany is not the only school district that has faced these challenges. Watervliet, a community of 10,000 just to the north, is one of the poorest school districts in the state of New York. According to one local resident, the district has been forced to cut its staff by 25% over the past few years; many positions are reportedly being staffed by unpaid volunteers and retirees. One can only hope that this is not the slippery slope Albany is heading down.
Nonetheless, Albany faces unique obstacles. First, because Albany is the state capital of New York, much of the property is owned by the state. As a result of state laws, this means that about 57% of Albany’s property is untaxable. Proposed legislation could help reduce the resulting amount of lost revenue, however. On March 13, Assemblywoman Pat Fahy, Assemblyman John McDonald and state Senator Neil Breslin (all representing Albany) stood alongside newly elected Democratic Mayor Kathy Sheehan as they announced a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) program for the W. Averell Harriman State Office Campus. The proposal would bring back $11.5 million to the city of Albany for the next ten years if it were approved by the state legislature and signed by the governor. However, this addresses only part of the revenue problem.
Another issue, the proverbial “elephant in the room”, is the charter school situation. Currently, the district provides over $35 million per year to charter schools within the city, only a small percentage of which is funded by the state. The battle over charter schools has entered the national picture of late, stemming from the growing feud between Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. De Blasio seeks to charge rent to charter schools utilizing city facilities, in a reversal from the policy of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In addition, he has rejected three of the applications for so-called “co-located” schools, buildings jointly shared by a charter school and a public school. This has led Eva Moskowitz, who runs the affected Success Academy Charter Schools, to launch a public relations blitz against de Blasio, accusing him of leaving 194 Harlem middle-schoolers out in the cold. On March 4, Moskowitz marched 11,000 parents, teachers and students to the state capitol, forcing the children to miss class to make a political point.
Unfortunately, Moskowitz has a powerful ally: Governor Cuomo. “Families for Excellent Schools”, who officially organized the rally, is currently running a radio ad essentially thanking Cuomo, Senate “co-president” Jeffrey Klein (an IDC member who progressives are looking to primary), and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (a Republican) for their support for charter schools. It should be pointed out that Families for Excellent Schools is backed by the Walton Family Foundation, which serves the interests of the world’s wealthiest family.
It is unfortunate that the issue of education has been turned into the political football that it is today. A few wealthy individuals recognized that they could make a lot of money off of the school system, whether it be through charter schools or overzealous standardized testing. Others saw an opportunity to attack teachers’ unions in the name of serving the interests of students. Still more seized the initiative to push government out of education and move big business in. Someone needs to put an end to all of this, before it is too late.