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Syracuse schools face $50 million budget gap

750 jobs would need to be cut if district can't find more money or cut costs

The Syracuse school district is projecting a record $50 million budget gap next year and is turning to a coalition of outside advisors to help devise a plan to close the gap.

School Superintendent Daniel Lowengard revealed the projected shortfall Tuesday at a daylong meeting of the coalition, which includes Say Yes to Education, the school board, city, county and union representatives and state and national consultants, among others.

It is unprecedented for the district to seek such input to develop a budget, but the projected gap is unprecedented, too, Lowengard said.

The district would have to cut 750 jobs from a workforce of roughly 4,000, to save $50 million, said Suzanne Slack, Syracuse School District chief financial officer. The intent is to keep the job cuts as low as possible by finding new revenue or cutting costs, Lowengard said.

Any job cuts would come on top of nearly 450 jobs the school board cut to balance this year’s budget at $354.5 million. Slack is projecting a 2.85 percent school budget decrease next year, with no increase in state aid or city property tax money. At this point in the process, all the budget projections are highly tentative.

Other Central New York school districts are anticipating major budget problems next year, too. As with Syracuse, they face increasing expenses for salaries, health benefits and pensions and anticipate decreases in state aid, according to the Central New York School Board Association and the Statewide School Finance Consortium.

The Syracuse budget coalition is looking at what a wide range of potential cuts and new income. They include, among other things:

  • Collaborating with the city of Syracuse and Onondaga County on services all three parties use, such as nurses, social workers and public works staff.
  • Outsourcing auxiliary services, for instance the management of Medicaid claims.
  • Going after specific education grants.
  • Redesigning special education to reduce the number of students who get services but still get them the help they need.
  • Convincing the state to more equitably distribute aid to high-need districts
  • Reducing or restructuring employee benefits.
  • Closing district schools.
  • Increasing class size.

Everything is on the table, Lowengard said.

“In the end there will be sacrifice,” he said.

The coalition is divided into teams that plan to meet regularly for the next two months and then make specific recommendations. Lowengard said he will then prepare a budget by Jan. 12. It then goes to the school board for any changes it wants to make and its approval.

The mayor and Syracuse Common Council have the final say over how much money the district can spend. This year, through the new coalition, City Hall will have an advisory voice in the budget from the outset.

Say Yes President Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey told the coalition that the city, county and district are developing a new model for shared governance.

“This is really cutting edge, exciting stuff. and it can make a difference,” she said.

Say Yes is a national, nonprofit education foundation that is working with the district and Syracuse University toward the goal of college graduation for every student. Say Yes pledges to provide college tuition for virtually every Syracuse graduate.

Say Yes and the district brought the coalition together. Say Yes has hired two national consultants to work with the district on budgeting.

Education Resource Strategies is doing a year-long analysis of district spending. The other company, Schaffer Consulting, helped General Electric make major changes, Schmitt-Carey said.

Say Yes has poured millions into the city district and Schmitt-Carey said she is working to secure $2 million from Say Yes to help close the budget gap.

Education Resource Strategies staff on Tuesday suggested options for cost cutting include restructuring how teachers are paid, for instance ending automatic pay raises; rethinking “one size fits all” class size for a more targeted approach; redesigning special education; outsourcing some services; and redesigning the central office.

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