SCHENECTADY — Schenectady City School District administrators outlined a dire financial outlook to the school board Monday night, shifting to an all-virtual school year for students in grades 7-12 and laying the groundwork for a cascade of staff layoffs.
The school board met for a special meeting Monday night to rescind the appointments of 15 educators, pulling back job offers to people who would have started work in the district Tuesday. The board also discussed a litany of other cost-saving measures officials said will be necessary if a 20 percent reduction in state aid comes to fruition, including consolidating students into fewer school buildings and taking some buildings out of service.
“It’s catastrophic, it’s devastating and there really isn’t any other way to describe it,” Schenectady interim Superintendent Aaron Bochniak said during the board meeting Monday.
Bochniak said he planned to recommend laying off 50 lunch monitors, 26 paraprofessionals and 13 teachers as part of a delay in the district’s pre-kindergarten program at the board’s Wednesday meeting. He also plans to outline even more staff layoffs at Wednesday’s meeting that would affect positions at every level of the district. Notification of those layoffs could begin as early as this week, Bochniak said.
The 15 positions the district formally rescinded Monday were part of the current year budget and would have filled roles in schools across the district as teachers, counselors, social workers and school psychologists. They had been offered jobs in recent months. District officials have frozen future spending and reallocated a handful of central office administrators to school buildings as part of a costs-saving administrative overhaul included in the budget.
The financial landscape in districts across the state has deteriorated rapidly in recent weeks as a 20-percent state aid cut district leaders have feared since the spring are now becoming reality. Gov. Andrew Cuomo for months has said school aid would be cut 20-percent without additional federal funding, and aid payments to districts since July have been reduced by that amount.
New York received over $1 billion in federal aid at the start of the pandemic, funding that was used to offset a reduction in state aid to schools. The new reductions come just as districts are taking on new costs to enable a litany of health precautions necessary to welcome students back to school buildings.
It’s not clear how the state aid cuts will play out through the remainder of the year, but if the across-the-board cuts aren’t adjusted based on district needs, Schenectady will be particularly hard hit. Kimberly Lewis, Schenectady’s school business official, projected an aid cut as high as $28.5 million this school year, which would wipe away more than three years of hard-fought funding increases and force cuts the district officials called “catastrophic.”
The growing financial constraints have started to force districts across the region to drastically pare back reopening plans: Albany and Lansingburgh school officials last week announced plans to limit in-person instruction to students in primary grades; Schenectady followed suit Monday and Bochniak predicted other districts would likely follow as well. Special education students who attend self-contained classrooms would still have the option for in-person instruction.
In an ominous sign of things to come, Lewis indicated the district may need to spend down its entire unemployment reserve fund to make payments for the forthcoming layoffs.
“It may not be sufficient,” she said of the reserve fund, which had around $750,000 in it as of July 1.
The Amsterdam school board also met for a special meeting Monday night to discuss its financial challenges. The district is still waiting on over $1 million in state reimbursement for the costs of running its pre-kindergarten program last school year and has no guarantee of funding for the current year’s program. Colleen DiCaprio, the district’s business official, outlined well over $1 million in unplanned expenses the district has taken on to accommodate COVID-related precautions. The board also approved over $700,000 to purchase student laptops, replacing hundreds of computers that were never returned at the end of last school year.
The board discussed a variety of cost-saving measures, including delaying the start of pre-kindergarten, trimming pay to teacher aides, eliminating sports, encouraging teachers to retire and other ideas likely to be fleshed out in the coming weeks and months. The board didn’t offer definitive direction about the pre-kindergarten program, but it moved to suspend the start to pre-kindergarten until after Nov. 30. The district has about 100 students in its pre-kindergarten program.
“We can’t start now based on where we are at,” Ruberti said during the board meeting.