Schenectady

Schenectady school officials eye 400-plus layoffs as budget woes grow

Schenectady High student Joey Joyce, 16, speaks; Molly Schaefer, right, cries on student Elizabeth Tchako after speaking
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Schenectady High student Joey Joyce, 16, speaks; Molly Schaefer, right, cries on student Elizabeth Tchako after speaking

Categories: -The Daily Gazette, News, Schenectady County

SCHENECTADY — The Schenectady City School District faces massive layoffs that could wipe away over half of the district’s paraprofessional support staff and nearly 10 percent of its teachers, a potential loss of over 440 employees in total.

Interim Superintendent Aaron Bochniak on Wednesday outlined the flood of potential layoffs as he explained budget cuts district officials are planning in light of the state withholding 20 percent of aid payments to school districts, reduced payments expected to continue.

The school board approved the first round of layoffs – about 30 paraprofessionals, 13 teachers and 50 part-time lunch monitors – on Wednesday, and Bochniak said he and other district leaders were working through seniority lists to determine who would be part of the next round of layoffs, which could come before the start of the school year.

“The people that are going to be most affected by this are our kids, our parents and the residents of our city,” Bochniak said.

Bochniak said he wanted to schedule another emergency board meeting sometime before Sept. 8, giving the board a chance to act on the bulk of the teacher and paraprofessional layoffs before the start of the school year. Those layoffs would include around 90 teachers and over 250 paraprofessionals. Another round of layoffs of administrators and other staff would follow at the board’s Sept. 16 meeting.

The district also plans consolidate students into about half of the district’s school buildings this year, sending Yates students to Zoller, Pleasant Valley students to Van Corlaer, Paige students to Woodlawn, Keane students to Lincoln, Martin Luther King students to Howe and Hamilton students to Fulton. The high school will be closed as all students in grades 7-12 spend the year learning remotely.

District officials suspended a litany of initiatives added in recent years to support struggling students, including a group of teachers tasked with offering general education students supports that mirror how special education students are supported. Contracts supporting peer mediation, student work experiences and improved math programming were all put on hold. Students will also receive fewer special classes and reduced hours in music programs.

The budget cuts also move to unwind a variety of specialized teams within the district and relocate staff back to school-based and classroom positions, including a districtwide crisis prevention team of social workers, instructional coaches who support teachers and intervention specialists who work with students struggling in particular subjects.

The staff cuts would decimate the district paraprofessional workforce, critical positions that help assist teachers, monitor hallways and engage with students. More than half of the district’s 467 paraprofessionals could be let go. Bochniak said with so many students learning virtually there is less need for the paraprofessionals.

The projected layoffs could slash as many as 95 teacher positions, starting with the least experienced teachers in the district, which would have an outsized impact on the district’s recent efforts to increase educator diversity. The list of potential layoffs also included 16 administrators, 30 staff in operations and maintenance, 16 clerical employees and over 20 other positions.

At the start of the meeting, parents and students lamented the district’s plan to shift all of its students in grades 7-12 to all-virtual learning, arguing students need an opportunity to learn in schools. While recognizing the difficult position of district officials, some of the parents urged them to reconsider the plan.

“I know this is going to fail our kids,” parent Cynthia Farmer told the board. “Our kids cannot stay home the whole year; it cannot happen.”

The plan for the layoffs comes as state budget officials grapple with a massive revenue shortfall and are reducing payments to local governments and school districts. Districts across the state have been notified to plan for state aid payments reduced by 20 percent, but the across-the-board funding reductions will land hardest on the state’s neediest districts, like Schenectady, which receive a larger share of their budgets from the state than wealthier districts.

Schenectady district officials estimate the cuts could cost the district as much as $28.5 million in this year’s budget. A 20-percent reduction in the district’s foundation aid – the state’s core funding formula – would equate to a reduction of over $2,000 per student; a comparable 20-percent cut in foundation aid for Shenendehowa would equate to just over $500 per student, Schenectady officials estimated.

The staff cuts outlined Wednesday night amount to nearly $21.5 million in reductions, with other planned cuts bringing the total to $27.6 million out of an overall budget of around $205 million.

The staff and program cuts are so massive Bochniak said the district’s mission and vision will be in jeopardy. Board members and speakers suggested the district may fail to meet its constitutional obligation to provide all of its students a “sound, basic” education.

Juliet Benaquisto, president of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers, in a statement at the start of the meeting pointed to state and federal lawmakers as harming the district’s ability to offer an appropriate education to its students.

“As a result of the state’s withholding necessary funds for its poorest education communities, like ours, and as a result of our federal government’s failure to provide for its citizens in their greatest time of need, we will struggle, and dare I say fail, to provide a basic and sound education to the children in the Schenectady City School District,” Benaquisto said.

Molly Schaefer, who has worked as both a middle and high school teacher in the district over the past decade, said the cuts facing Schenectady are the product of “institutional racism” that disproportionately harms minority students.

“The entirety of Schenectady City School District is at a disadvantage – not only the students, but all staff, families and our community as a whole is and will continue to be negatively impacted by this lack of funding,” Schaefer said at the start of the meeting, trying to hold back tears. “Due to this, our students will not have the same opportunities that they have had in the past, or as students in neighboring white communities still have.”

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