Proposed Niskayuna 2015-16 school budget released

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BY REBECCA ISENHART
Gazette Reporter

NISKAYUNA — Interim Superintendent John Yagielski on Tuesday night presented a proposed 2015-16 budget that totals $78.1 million, a 1 percent increase over this year’s $77.3 million.

It contains no property tax levy increase.

The financial picture Yagielski presented was packed with contingency plans. The largest one has to do with this year’s uncertain outlook concerning state aid — the governor and state legislative bodies have each proposed school aid amounts, but so far there is no agreement. That has made budgeting difficult for the state’s school districts, as it’s possible districts won’t know how much state aid they get until after their own budgets are due.

While planning the upcoming academic year’s budget, the Niskayuna Central School District faced this particular unknown by sticking to the most conservative funding estimate available, Yagielski said.

The 2015-16 budget addresses concerns about high student-to-teacher ratios by implementing “flex zones” that provide opportunities to place entering kindergarten students and new enrollees in one of two or even three schools, based on their home addresses.

In addition, there is space in the budget for a new elementary school teacher position, in case one is needed. If a new teacher is hired, the district may not decide where to place him or her until after enrollment numbers are nearly finalized in August.

“We did put dollars into the budget for positions in case we have unanticipated enrollment increases,” Yagielski said. “We don’t want to short-change us in the most important things.”

Another uncertainty in the future of education statewide is the success or failure of Common Core standards. Yagielski said one way the budget addresses this uncertainty is to spend time and money over the next two years working with teachers and experts to develop a curriculum unique to Niskayuna, one that he envisions will meet and exceed Common Core standards.

“That’s a foundation,” he said of the Common Core standards. “We’re looking beyond that.”

In the proposed budget, funds have been set aside to train teachers over the summer in curriculum development. Then, over the next two years, teachers would be given three-day releases from their classrooms to work in small groups on a new curriculum. Yagielski said nearly one-third of faculty members in the district would likely participate in the first year of the process.

“We want classes that are well-equipped. We want the class sizes to be where they need to be. And we want our faculty to know that we really have great faith in them,” he said.

The budget presentation outlined seven main focus areas for planning and improvement: classroom equipment, class size management, professional development for faculty, improved instructional support, improved student support, central services such as transportation, and facilities maintenance and improvement.

Other projects include a new playground to replace the condemned one that was demolished for safety reasons at Birchwood Elementary at the beginning of winter, an accelerated transition to hiring back district bus drivers to reclaim district control of transportation services, an additional social worker for the district, a 10-percent increase in consumable supplies for classrooms, and stronger support for teachers’ professional development.

Copies of the complete budget proposal are available for the public to review in the district offices at 1239 Van Antwerp Road during business hours, and will be converted to a digital file and posted on the website soon, the district said.

This story originally appeared in The Daily Gazette.