Schenectady schools budget vacates positions but avoids layoffs

Faculty and staff of color call on board to protect key diversity and equity positions
Schenectady City Schools Acting Superintendent Dr. Arron Bochniak in April
Schenectady City Schools Acting Superintendent Dr. Arron Bochniak in April

Categories: News, Schenectady County

SCHENECTADY  — The city school board on Wednesday adopted a $205 million budget for next school year, but not before facing a wave of messages from parents and district employees concerned budget cuts would harm the distirct’s equity efforts. 

A letter jointly signed by over two dozen district faculty and staff of color outlined broader concerns about the treatment of employees and students of color within the district and called for protecting investments in positions focused on improving outcomes for students of color and diversifying district staff.

The letter, which board President John Foley read aloud at the outset of the meeting, urged the school board to protect specific positions “that work exclusively towards improving the outcomes for Black and brown children,” including parent and community engagement specialists and the district’s equity and culturally-responsive education supervisor.

The equity supervisor position, which focuses on the district’s efforts to make its teaching more reflective of the lives of its students, was included in a proposed administrative reorganization that would consolidate positions in the district’s curriculum office and shift the employees to other open positions in the district.

But the staff letter writers and a group of parents who also submitted comments worried the change would “water down” the district’s equity initiatives by spreading responsibility for them across multiple administrators.

“We can’t take that backward from our vision,” said Jamaica Miles, a district parent and community activist, as she piloted a new plan to allow community members to call in to the virtual meeting to make direct public comments. “We cannot water down our focus, program and resources.”

The faculty and staff letter writers laid out a series of asks of the school board and district officials, including mandating annual anti-racism training, establishing racial representation within the district leadership team and preserving positions focused on expanding equity and diversity and improving outcomes for students of color.

“We ask that equity work not be sacrificed to balance the budget and positions that work exclusively towards improving the outcomes for Black and brown children not be cut,” the staff members wrote.

The plan district officials presented Wednesday reworked and earlier version of the proposed reorganization to rename the new instructional office as the “office of educational equity and instructional support,” explicitly placing responsibility for equity within the office’s director job, and create a third assistant director within that department charged with being responsible for culturally responsive education among other duties.

Acting Superintendent Aaron Bochniak noted that some of the other positions identified in the letter were maintained in the proposed budget, including engagement specialists and an assistant director of diversity recruitment and retention.

“If anything, what I’m trying to show is a greater emphasis on equity in this work,” Bochniak said. 

The budget adopted by the school board avoids layoffs, but it leaves unfilled 12 vacant positions and reorganizes central office staff to eliminate six administrative jobs in a bid to close the district’s budget gap.

The district spending plan for next school year establishes a $204.7 million spending limit on next year’s general fund and maintains a flat local tax levy. Residents in both Schenectady and Rotterdam would see a slight decrease in their school taxes, under the plan, according to district estimates.

The district’s overall budget, which includes its food service and special aid funds, would top $231 million next school year, under the plan, a 1.1 percent increase from the current year budget. District voters approve the general fund spending portion of the budget.

Like other districts across the state, district officials in Schenectady are still bracing for deeper reductions in state aid, which could be announced on a rolling basis throughout the next year.

“We thought we would know by today, but we still don’t know and this is a big unknown for us,” Kimberly Lewis, the district’s business official, said of updated aid cuts.

The budget plan includes holding about $8.2 million in so-called “unrestricted fund balance,” a funding cushion that Lewis and board members acknowledged may need to be drawn on during the budget year to cover planned expenses.

“There are scenarios if this happens, that happens, we might not have enough money to fund the budget we are passing without going into reserves,” board President John Foley said at the meeting.

Another $1.6 million is used to maintain, while not filling, certain staff positions. If the district faces state aid reductions during the school year, they can cut other expenses in the district, dip into the fund balance dollars or layoff staff sometime in the middle of the school year to cover those cuts – though the plan aims to limit the prospect of mid-year cuts by not allocating more of the fund balance dollars at the outset.

The budget plan included a continued freeze on the 12 staff positions, a $275,000 reduction in teacher training, a $100,000 reduction in software and database subscriptions and $275,000 in savings on summer programs found by partnering with more community organizations. The planned administrative reorganization is projected to save the district over $700,000 by vacating the administrative positions, while shifting the people in those positions to other open administrative positions throughout the district.

Board member Katherine Stephens voted against the budget after expressing concern that the administrative reorganization eliminated the equity supervisor position.

The adopted budget goes up for voter approval in the absentee-only June 9 budget and school board vote. Ballots, which will be mailed to voters and include prepaid return postage, must be received by the district by June 9 at 5 p.m. to be counted. Ballot boxes will be located at seven schools throughout the district, available for voters to drop ballots before the election deadline.

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