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As Syracuse schools improve, budget includes $14 million proposed increase

Tom Magnarelli
Superintendent Sharon Contreras at a budget hearing at Syracuse City Hall.

The Syracuse City School District is proposing a $14 million budget increase for the next fiscal year. City councilors are worried overspending could lead to problems in the future.

The good news is graduation rates are up close to 60 percent, some of the highest in the past decade. More students are enrolling in career and technical education. Half of the schools that were marked as struggling by the state have moved off the list.

But what worries Syracuse common councilors at budget hearings is the $11 million the district wants to use from its fund balance, leaving only about $5 million in the balance by the end of the next fiscal year. Six years ago, state aid decreased by so much that hundreds of employees in the district had to be laid off. State aid is tied to the economy, and one wrong move has a ripple effect.

Superintendent Sharon Contreras said support services that address behavioral issues, special needs and nutrition are contributing to the district's academic progress. But she said if they do not receive more state aid next year, the district will have to make reductions.

“We have to do our work to advocate and make sure we receive enough funding to support the staff that we have," Contreras said. "If we are put in that situation we would stay as far away from the schools as possible and look at everything else before we look at school staffing.”

Common Councilors agreed that if budget cuts are needed, full-time staff should be the last thing that is cut. But Contreras admitted that would not be easy.

"Staffing makes up anywhere from 70-80 percent of a school budget not just here, but everywhere," Contreras said. "When you don't have enough funding and you need to make large reductions, the only place you generally can go is to staff." 

The school district budget is increasing by about 3.5 percent. District officials said the increase can be attributed to required extended learning time in schools, exhausted one-time funding sources and settling retroactive contracts with staff. The Common Council is expected to vote on the budget May 9.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.