Capital Region

Impact of state education aid cuts hit highest-need districts first



CAPITAL REGION — The impact of state school aid cuts has hurt the Capital Region’s highest-need districts first as high school students in urban districts lose out on the in-person school choice others still have.

Secondary students in Schenectady and Albany, and most students in Lansingburgh, will spend the coming school year learning remotely, regardless of their desires, while under current plans students in suburban districts have the option of at least some in-person instruction starting this month.

As the impact of feared state aid cuts start to become reality, educators and advocates fear the pull back in high-need districts will only exacerbate long-standing inequities in educational opportunities for students in low-income communities with a high percentage of students of color.

Students are getting hit from both ends of the age spectrum, too, with Schenectady and Amsterdam school districts in recent days both delaying the start of pre-kindgeraten programs until the winter at the earliest, again pointing to reduced state aid payments. Pre-kindergarten programs – serving nearly 300 students in Schenectady and about 100 students in Amsterdam – have been a focus of lawmakers and educators in recent years and are cited by many as one of the most effective public investments.

“When we say kids in grades 7-12 are doing all remote learning in only high-need poor districts, we are saying students who are poor and disadvantaged are going to receive a lesser quality education than their wealthier peers,” said Jasmine Gripper, director of Alliance for Quality Education, a statewide education advocacy organization. “That is only going to make the inequity even greater.”

The organization on Tuesday published a report detailing how state funding cuts since the pandemic have most affected high-need districts that rely more heavily on state education funding. While funding formulas target those high needs in setting aid allocations for districts, state aid payments to all districts in recent weeks have been reduced by 20 percent. If the reduced payments continue as is, cuts and layoffs will spread to districts across the state, but they will hit deepest in districts that rely most on state funding.

Education advocates and analysts have called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to weight the funding cuts to mitigate harm to high-need districts. Lawyers involved in ongoing litigation against the state on school funding challenges that predate the pandemic are considering whether to ask a judge to prevent further cuts. Plaintiffs in the suit include Schenectady parent Jamaica Miles.

Michael Rebell, an attorney involved in years of state education funding litigation, said any more aid cuts would come on top of what plaintiffs argue is a system that already was failing to meet its obligation to the state’s school children. Moreover, he argued previous state court decisions required the state to take into consideration the real needs of school districts in determining funding levels.

“We are saying it’s already inadequate, and they are going to cut it 20 percent, it’s just unimaginable,” Rebell said Tuesday.

The funding debate also implicates a litany of education policies, including the state’s graduation requirements. Gripper argued it would be fundamentally unfair to force students with no choice but to learn remotely to pass the same Regents exams to graduate as students who will have had some in-person instruction, calling on state Education Department leaders to cancel all state-administered tests this year – and sooner rather than later, she said.

Layoffs in Schenectady

Schenectady interim Superintendent Aaron Bochniak on Monday outlined a series of layoffs district officials plan to take soon and foreshadowed a wider set of layoffs he will share with the board during the board’s Wednesday meeting, the first to be held in person since the start of the pandemic.

The district plans to lay off 50 lunch monitors, part-time hourly positions held largely by city residents helping to oversee lunchtime in schools across the district. About 30 paraprofessionals and 13 teachers will also be laid off as part of the delay to pre-kindergarten programs. The teacher layoffs will be based on seniority within a particular certification area, according to Juliet Benaqustio, president of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers. Since pre-kindergarten classrooms fall within the elementary certification, teachers with the least experience in any grades within that area will be the first let go.

Bochniak on Monday indicated he would ask the board to approve those layoffs Wednesday, while outlining more layoffs and cost-saving measures to come. The school board on Monday also approved rescinding job offers from 15 educators who would have started in the district Tuesday.

Benaquisto on Tuesday said the budget developments have unfolded quickly in the past week, saying as of the end of last week she didn’t know whether the pre-kindergarten positions would be cut. She said district officials have taken the position the pandemic and funding problems constitute an emergency that allows them to bypass 30-day-notice requirements.

“It just feels really cold to me that we are going to say to people we need to lay you off and provide no notice beyond what we are saying in this board meeting,” Benaquisto said.

The layoffs add yet another layer of uncertainty and anxiety to an already difficult school year. Benaquisto said no teachers in the district had class assignments as of Tuesday, meaning in some cases teachers don’t even know what grade they will be teaching this school year, and whether it will be completely virtual or in person. Now, many have to fear for their jobs.

Benaquisto also highlighted how devastating the program cuts will be to students in the district, noting the many supports that have gradually been built up in the district in recent years and the work teachers have put into making their classrooms welcoming learning spaces for their students.

“We have a community of students who get value from early education, and they are now going to be impacted and that cohort of kids will be impacted for the rest of their career,” she said of the delay to pre-kindergartenten. “We are an urban district with high poverty and we have students with the highest need, and we are going to take the biggest hit when it comes to this 20-percent reduction.”

Benaquisto called on state and federal lawmakers to provide districts the resources needed to reopen schools safely. She said she was open to discussing any ideas to save the district money but resisted the idea that a pay freeze or other financial sacrifice from teachers would be sufficient to solve the enormous funding challenges.

“Freezing a year of our pay is not going to solve this problem,” she said.

We need the money’

The fight over school funding may soon move into the state Legislature. State lawmakers have introduced proposals to raise taxes on the wealthy or to tax stock market transactions, but none have earned the support of a majority of both chambers and the governor.

“It’s heartbreaking to see this happening in public education, and it’s not just Schenectady, you are going to see schools across the state have to make decisions like this,” Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, said Tuesday. “The governor absolutely does not have my support on these devastating cuts. This is going to do nothing more than set education back years and years.”

Santabarabara, who did not commit to any specific proposal to raise new revenue, said Cuomo should prioritize education over other funded projects, citing an expansion of cashless tolls as an example of something that could be put on hold to support school funding.

Capital Region parents and educators plan to march on the state Capitol on Friday, meeting at East Capitol Park at 9 a.m.

“Our message is to save our schools and our kids’ education matters,” said Chris Marceline, a Lansingburgh parent organizing the march and rally.

Marceline, whose high school daughter must stay at home after the Albany County school district announced it was limiting in-person attendance to students in pre-k through second grade, welcomed people from all districts across the region and said the rally was intended as a call for funding to bolster schools.

“[Students] are missing out on so much more than just their academics,” she said. “We need the money. The elected officials cutting the education budget is very irresponsible.”

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