By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Interim Superintendent John Yagielski has just a few more months with the Niskayuna Central School District before he will be replaced by a permanent leader.
But on March 24 in the Van Antwerp Middle School auditorium, the budget he presented for the 2015-16 school year demonstrated long-term vision that will shape the school’s operations long after he returns to retirement.
At the end of the 2013-14 school year, Yagielski announced his plan to rebuild the district budget from scratch, rather than making incremental changes to a pre-existing plan, the typical practice. Starting last summer, Yagielski invited a graduate intern to the district to begin pulling apart old budgets in search of patterns, then laying out historic data in layman’s terms.
Then, he joined with students, Board of Education members, parents and teachers to begin again.
“Unlike a lot of people, I don’t think about budgets in terms of numbers,” Yagielski told a room full of about 30 community members, in addition to the Board of Education, who gathered for the presentation.
“The budget should really be looked at as our expression of our plan for where we’re going and what we’re going to do,” he said.
But, of course, the numbers are important, too. The proposed budget totals $78.1 million, a 1 percent increase over this year’s $77.3 million. There will be no increase in the property tax levy.
The financial picture Yagielski presented was packed with careful contingency plans. The largest one, of course, had to do with this year’s unusual circumstances with regard to state aid: the governor and state legislative bodies each proposed amounts, but no final decision was made until the end of March.
While planning the upcoming academic year’s budget, the committee faced this particular unknown by sticking to a conservative estimate of $1 million in additional funding. The district recently learned that, in fact, it will receive only $850,000, an increase of 4.5 percent from last year.
However, Yagielski said cost savings in other areas, such as transportation, made up most of the difference between the numbers the committee worked with and the actual state aid available. In the end, the real amount falls just $12,800 short of the budget committee’s best guess, which is small enough that nothing in the proposed budget will need to be adjusted.
“From our point of view, we’re on the mark,” Yagielski said. “We don’t have to change a thing.”
There is room in the budget for other, less quantifiable possibilities, too.
Class size is one issue that has been periodically contentious in Niskayuna over the past several years.
The 2015-16 budget addresses concerns about high student-to-teacher ratios by implementing “flexzones” 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 or exceed Common Core standards.
Other projects residents will likely welcome include a new playground to replace the one that was condemned and demolished for safety reasons at Birchwood Elementary School 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.