Local school districts talk budget and future of Spring Semester

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CAPITAL REGION, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Stimulus payments are already in the hands of millions of Americans, but school districts still haven’t seen a cent. Local superintendents say they have no guarantees on their financial future from the federal government or the state.

“It’s certainly caused a lot of havoc for our kids, first and foremost, and our staff as well too,” says Schenectady City School District Interim Superintendent Aaron Bochniak.

The New York State Division of Budget warned back in August, without a stimulus package, some aid payments might be cut up to 20 percent. Representatives say rather than making permanent cuts, payments are evaluated based on each district’s need every month. The bulk of school year payments are also usually made in March, meaning when COVID hit in force in 2020, most districts didn’t get their full aid for the 2019-2020 school year.

“Combining the withholdings from last school year and those in the Fall, I’d say we’re at a loss of around $3 million to $4 million, and we’re only halfway through the fiscal year so far,” Bochniak says.

He says his district already had to let go around 420 people over current and expected budget shortfalls.

“Because we reduced our numbers of staff so significantly, many of our virtual class sizes are at full capacity. Students aren’t getting as much individualized and differentiated instruction as they might necessarily need,” he explains to NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.

Over in City School District of Albany, aid payments were not reduced in September and October, so the Albany Public School Teacher’s Association challenges why haven’t the 220 laid off personnel been reinstated?

“Being laid off at the end of September when you’re a school teacher is a horrible time. All other districts have usually made their decisions to fill openings, so obviously that has a huge impact on our members,” says APSTA President Laura Franz. “It certainly sets a tone about how we value our employees and how we respect the professionals that are working so hard within our district.”

However, Superintendent Kaweeda Adams counters state aid payments were cut starting in November by $700,000 and again in the December/January period for a total $302,000. Adams also adds withholding from the 2019-2020 school year is about $1.9 million. She says this plus no word yet on how federal stimulus will be shared means it’s too early to make financial changes.

“I may be bringing people back only to release them again, because it would be the same people based on seniority as to how we do our layoffs, and that’s based on the contracts,” Adams explains. “We need to make fiscally responsible decisions so when I’m able to bring people back, it’s for a real period of time.”

Franz also questions the types of positions that were removed from the 2020-2021 plan.

“Many of our cuts centered around those behavior specialists and social worker supports, people who it is their process to help students cope with difficult situations and nothing could be more difficult than this pandemic,” Franz says. “It’s their social and emotional development at stake here, and we are already losing so much to COVID. It’s really alarming that I’m hearing COVID is the reason why we have to lose more and not be giving more to our students.”

Adams replies that positions were chosen based on how much interaction a staff member had with students, contract terms, and nothing can be brought back without taking every factor of the pandemic into consideration.

“It is horrible to think that we would have to have the layoffs that we had to do. No one wanted to do that at all, and I stand by that. Those decisions were not based on the importance of a role, because every single role in our district is important to the success of our children. It came down to a matter of how we had to look at the delivery of services and rearrange how we do things, what could we combine and utilize our community partners for,” Adams says.

“Even if we receive the funding, there are building [occupancy] constraints that we have, there are COVID requirements that we still have to meet. If those things are still in place, that’s going to impact how we rebuild our programs,” she goes on to say.

The additional uncertainty also centers around future payments and reimbursement for transportation costs.

“The double whammy that people are really concerned about is, will we see any reductions for aid in March to the 2020-2021 school year, and also what will the state budget look like for 21-22?” asks Dr. L. Oliver Robinson, Shenendehowa Central School District Superintendent.

Governor Cuomo is set to make a budget announcement on Monday. In the meantime, school district leaders say they’re also drowning in unexpected COVID costs.

“We based our expenditures based on certain rules and certain expectations,” says Dr. Robinson. “I haven’t looked at the numbers here recently, but I can comfortably say we are in the millions of dollars on COVID expenditures. Look at all the PPE we have, look at latex gloves that are $1.50 one week, and then $3.50 the following week, but you still need them. Those are just an example of the factors economically and the marketplace factors. The reality is we have an obligation to our taxpayers to try and contain cost as much as we can.”

Capital District educators say they hope lawmakers will take the needs of students into consideration when making those crucial budgetary decisions.

“Who is really being impacted by this? The common denominator is this comes down to the quality of education that our children receive,” says Dr. Robinson. “We can’t be penny wise and pound foolish when it comes to providing for our children’s education. It’s a heck of a lot cheaper to do it now than to try and rebuild in the future after you’ve made significant reductions, because the cost of catching back up is always more than the cost of keeping things going.”

“Some certainty from the state and the Division of Budget or the state education department would certainly help us in planning the remainder of the school year,” says Bochniak.

“I think this really shows how decisions at the federal level trickle down to the states and then down to how that affects the districts. When things are good, you don’t always see it, but it really is all very interconnected,” says Adams.

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