Board of Education Report: 5-6/7-8 Configuration Selected; A Challenging Budget Year

Over the course of meetings on March 23 and 24, held via remote videoconference and streamed live for the public, the Board of Education received additional information about the program opportunities within the final three configuration options, made a configuration decision, and was provided with a school budget update. We recognize that these are extraordinary and challenging times due to the COVID-19 public health crisis, but we have a responsibility to keep moving forward and planning for next year and the future for our schools, students and community.

-Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra, Jr.

Capital Project: Important Points

  • We acknowledge that the COVID-19 public health crisis is likely to have a significant impact on our taxpayers and district finances.
  • However, the operating budget for next year and the capital project that we have been discussing are entirely separate. The capital project under consideration will not have an impact on the operating budget until at least 2023-24.
  • We are focused on providing the community with a ballot proposition that enables facilities improvements while keeping debt levels steady – at no additional tax rate impact.
  • We have been planning this project for several years: Maintaining the district’s facilities in a fiscally responsible way requires us to keep moving forward and meet certain planning timelines.

Configuration Decision

At the March 24 Board of Education meeting, the Board unanimously selected the following K-8 grade-level configuration for the future as it plans a capital project to go before voters in December of this year:

  • Five, K-4 Elementary Schools
  • A Grade 5-6 Lower Middle School
  • A Grade 7-8 Upper Middle School

In selecting this option, Board members cited the academic, social/emotional, and community-building benefits of this model. They also highlighted the fact that many community members had indicated a preference for this option and that there was significant teacher support for moving away from the current configuration and bringing all Niskayuna students together with their grade-level in the middle years.

Because the district is planning a capital project proposal based on the work it can accomplish with no additional tax rate impact, the programmatic advantages of the options were the driving factor in the decision. Program enhancements that were identified as inherent in the 5-6/7-8 approach included greater teacher collaboration, professional development and instructional consistency across grade levels; building student and community cohesion earlier; 5th-grade specific enhancements such as World Language, Engineering Technology, Business, FACS; greater potential for 8th grade accelerated programs; and more teacher specialization starting in grade 5.

One concern that was mentioned in regard to this configuration was the additional location transition with the addition of a 5-6 school. Others have pointed out that this transition is less of an issue because students will be moving together with their entire grade. The district’s focus will be on ensuring quality, thoughtful transitions with continuous counseling support and team-building activities.

The location of the Grade 7-8 upper middle school will be Iroquois. The lower middle school was initially considered for Van Antwerp and that remains a possibility. However, throughout the process, the idea was raised that there may be advantages to locating the lower middle school at Hillside Elementary School and a K-4 neighborhood elementary school at Van Antwerp. This will be assessed in the near future.

What’s next now that the configuration decision has been made?

  • The district’s architects and construction managers will conduct the detailed planning and analysis necessary to give the Board of Education options for the full capital project scope.
  • A team of stakeholders, including teachers and instructional leaders, will comprise a Reconfiguration Task Force that will begin the process of designing the middle-level program (grades 5-8) with the new configuration.

Board of Education members thanked all of the teachers, parents and family members, residents, and students who have participated in this process so far through several community and staff forums, online surveys, the Capital Project Community Advisory Committee, e-mails, phone calls, public comment periods and more.

Budget Update

As discussed at the March 9 Board of Education meeting, the district faces a significant budget gap for next year. The reason for this is that revenue (state aid and property taxes) are not keeping pace with projected expenditures. Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra, Jr., said there are only two real options for closing the gap: increasing the tax levy and/or reducing expenses.

The shortfall with a tax levy increase at this district’s tax levy limit of 2.15 percent next year is approximately $2.8 million. Given the magnitude of the gap, Dr. Tangorra said addressing it requires consideration of a higher-than-usual tax levy increase next year and budget reductions.

To reduce expenses, the district is looking to realize some savings through attrition and exploring a retirement incentive. While workforce reductions are a last resort, it’s clear that they will be necessary.

In providing a status report at the March 24 meeting, Dr. Tangorra said that in its current form, the budget calls for a tax levy increase of 4.57 percent and includes the reduction of the full-time equivalent of 20 positions. Reducing the levy from this amount will involve more positions.

The positions and programs involved have not been identified yet. At the next Board meeting on April 7, the superintendent will outline potential reductions at different tax levy scenarios for more discussion and consideration.

“It’s heartbreaking for our schools, community and colleagues to have to consider reducing positions,” Dr. Tangorra said. “In a time of so much uncertainty, we have a responsibility to balance all of the factors involved: the need to provide a quality, future-focused program, the concerns of our taxpayers, and keeping our focus on sustainability. We have a responsibility to make the best decisions we can, and we will.”