SCHENECTADY — When Elizabeth Tchako was a ninth-grader at Schenectady High School, she joined a peer mediation program and clubs focused on student activism – opportunities that have shaped her past three years.
Now, as the senior class president, Tchako fears students behind her won’t be able to enjoy the same opportunities and that it might take years for the school to rebuild the hard-fought improvements of recent years, when the high school topped a 70-percent graduation rate for the first time in over a decade.
With the district facing a potential 20-percent loss of state aid, officials this week suspended a litany of programs, announced hundreds of layoffs and shifted all students in grades 7-12 to all-virtual learning.
“Our school was doing so well, and this cut hit us so bad it’s going to take a really long time to get back to where we were,” Tchako said Thursday.
During Wednesday’s school board meeting, when district officials outlined over $25 million in budget cuts, Tchako mourned the loss of a peer mediation program that sought to address conflicts within the school and strengthen community. Schenectady students trained to facilitate mediation circles even visited neighboring districts to share their skills.
“It built a trust within the school for me, because I was able to talk with adults and not feel like my business would be shared. It made me feel like I could talk with my peers and my business would not be shared,” Tchako said of the mediation circles, which had spread widely within the school. “It gave space for room to talk … I think it represented community building.”
The contract that funds the mediation specialists who run the school-based program is indefinitely on hold as the district braces for a loss of state aid that could reach $28.5 million. The teachers on special assignments to work with students to expand mediation and other programs, including to neighboring districts, will be shifted back to classrooms – albeit virtual ones, in many cases.
Tchako, who had originally selected to attend school in person, and some of her classmates highlighted the fundamental unfairness of Schenectady students losing out on the choices that students in wealthier, predominantly white neighboring districts still have.
“I think it just goes to show, everything going on in the news today and the stuff you hear about racism toward Black and brown people, we can see it starts with education,” Tchako said. “It just proves institutionalized racism is going on today.”
School officials this week have moved quickly to both present and approve staff layoffs that could shrink the district’s teacher workforce by nearly 10 percent and slash more than half of the paraprofessionals who assist in classrooms and hallways.
After years of rallying and pressuring lawmakers to boost funding to Schenectady schools, the district effectively slashed five years worth of investments and new programs and staff in a single meeting.
“It is disheartening after so many years of fighting for what our children are owed – and they weren’t even funded at the level they should have been – and to see that all taken away,” board member Ann Reilly said at Wednesday’s meeting.
The school board is scheduled to meet remotely Friday at 7:30 p.m., the third meeting this week. The meeting is slated to include an executive session, budget presentation and the opportunity for further staffing actions. Interim Superintendent Aaron Bochniak indicated Wednesday he wanted to hold a meeting prior to the start of the school year so the board could approve teacher and paraprofessional layoffs. Those layoffs could total 90 or more teachers and over 250 paraprofessionals, Bochniak said Wednesday.
Tchako said the paraprofessionals — many live in Schenectady and have children in the school district — play an important role in connecting and relating with students, serving as an outlet for many students.
“Those are the people who are there to support us and now they don’t work here anymore, they played such key roles in our lives,” she said. “I feel like a lot of them did more than what their job was.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, Damonni Farley, a parent engagement specialist in the district, called on the broader community step up for the city’s children. He said a coalition of community groups plans to organize opportunities and sites for students to get in-person support from teachers, counselors and other community members.
“If COVID-19 shows us anything as a community, it’s that it’s up to us as a community to get our needs met, no one is coming to save us,” Farley said during the meeting. “No one is coming to save us, so we might as well get to work ourselves.”