The Schenectady school board approved dozens of more staff layoffs Wednesday night, including eliminating most assistant principal positions, as state budget officials said layoffs were “premature” and teachers unions sued the state over aid reductions.
The Schenectady Federation of Teachers and its president, Juliet Benaquisto, joined a school funding lawsuit filed Tuesday in Albany County challenging the constitutionality of 20-percent reductions in aid payments to school districts across the state. The suit argues the education of students in Schenectady and other districts was being put at risk.
“Because of the reduction our district is concerned they will see, our students are going to have less access to the supports they truly need,” Benaquisto said Wednesday, outlining reductions to reading specialists, course offerings and programs, support staff, social workers and other educators who work directly with students.
But state budget officials dismissed the lawsuit as “frivolous and uninformed,” and in an opinion piece written for the Albany Times-Union, state Budget Director Robert Mujica said that “some school districts are acting prematurely as they undertake mass layoffs,” arguing the state has “temporarily withheld” a small percentage of total school funding.
In the article, Mujica pins the blame for New York’s budget shortfall, and any withheld state aid, on the federal government. He wrote that the state is calibrating its budget by temporarily withholding portions of payments. He suggested district needs would be taken into account for future aid reductions or if the state needs to turn to actual cuts.
“The state cannot fully fund school aid for the entire school year without federal aid,” Mujica wrote. “There’s no question school district reliance on state aid varies widely, and we’re not going to let the federal government’s inaction impose the most harm on those with the highest need.”
Budget office spokesman Freeman Klopott on Wednesday said that school district aid payments slated for the end of the month would be fully paid.
Meanwhile, Schenectady interim Superintendent Aaron Bochniak on Wednesday said while it was promising to hear budget officials say district needs would be accounted for going forward, he also said he needs more clarity and stability to manage a district budget that relies on state aid for nearly 70 percent of its revenue.
Bochniak said he spoke to a budget official last week who told him the budget office was working on a more equitable approach to reductions, but Bochniak said he left the call without full clarity about what the district could expect.
“I wasn’t able to get any kind of assurance from them about what we should be prepared for,” Bochniak said.
After the district received a state aid payment reduced by 20 percent, about $600,000 short of what the district had planned, and saw the state miss other payment deadlines, district officials moved quickly over the past two weeks to lay off hundreds of staff, including around 100 teachers and over 225 paraprofessionals. Officials feared 20-percent reductions throughout the year would add up to a $28.5 million loss for the district and, without any greater clarity from state officials about the course of reductions, they braced for a worst-case scenario days before the start of the school year.
Bochniak on Wednesday said the longer the district waited to cut positions, the more difficult it would be make the budget reductions. He also previously said he wanted to make the layoffs prior to the start of the school year, so teachers were not removed from classrooms weeks or months after the start of school.
“We can’t hang out there on a wing and a prayer, hoping (money) comes through,” Bochniak said. “We have to take action, it would be irresponsible otherwise, to our students and our taxpayers.”
On Wednesday night, the Schenectady school board approved another round of layoffs, including nine administrators, seven central office staff, around 20 cleaners, 10 community engagement specialists and a number of other secretarial and clerical positions. The board also eliminated vacant positions. The district has faced over $800,000 in withheld funding, Bochniak said.
A major aid payment is due later this month for districts around the state, and while budget officials on Wednesday indicated none of those payments would be reduced, districts still have no better idea of what to expect in state aid this school year.
The flurry of school funding news on Wednesday started with New York State United Teachers filing a lawsuit against Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mujica on behalf of the Schenectady, Yonkers and Copiague teachers unions, as well as Tracy Cimino, a recently laid off paraprofessional in Schenectady and the parent of a Schenectady High School sophomore.
The suit argues the state Legislature ceded its power to the governor in granting authority to withhold budgeted payments and that the governor has overstepped his authority in carrying out reductions the union says prevents schools from providing students a sound education.
The complaint argues many schools in the state struggled and failed to provide “the minimal opportunity for students to receive the sound, basic education” guaranteed under the constitution due to insufficient funding prior to the pandemic and that the reductions only exacerbate the problem.
“In the midst of this pandemic and unprecedented upheaval in New York’s public school districts regarding their operations, their delivery of services, and their financial burdens … the state withheld, and has announced it will continue to withhold, essential state funding to public schools,” the complaint argues.
In a prepared statement, budget office spokesman Klopott called the lawsuit “frivolous and uninformed” and claimed the state “has paid nearly 100 percent of funds for school districts.” The statement shifted the focus to the lack of federal funding and called on the teachers union to focus its efforts on Washington. The statement did say future state actions would take school district need into consideration.
“We will work with our partners in government to address any remaining gaps in federal assistance and, in the absence of federal funding, any future actions will take school district need into consideration,” Klopott said. “NYSUT should stop with the nonsense and lies, and focus on Washington and the federal funding we need, not distract attention.”
Benaquisto, the Schenectady union president and a Mont Pleasant Middle School teacher, said the reductions and their impact were not a distraction to the students grappling with large class sizes and fewer educators.
“Albany is not very from Schenectady, and if the governor would like to come meet the people from my unit who have been laid off, I’m happy to coordinate that,” she said. “I don’t know how anyone from the Governor’s Office can say this is a distraction. These are the children from Schenectady who started school on Monday and there are 120 teachers not there that would have been, 280 paras who would have been there.”
The specific arguments advanced by the union rests on the state’s budget-making process as outlined in the state constitution, which empowers the governor to submit budget bills to the Legislature that can then approve the bills by only striking or reducing specific items. When the Legislature passed a budget in April, lawmakers authorized the governor’s budget director to withhold payments if the revenues fall short of expenses.
State budget officials started reducing aid payments to school districts in July, including deferred reimbursements for expenses districts incurred last school year. Schenectady and districts across the Capital Region have all started to report the reduced payments; Schenectady lost out on over $600,000 in just one reduced payment this summer. The last state payment for BOCES aid from last school year was due at the start of the month, representing about 45 percent of the total BOCES aid payment for the year, according to the suit. The payment has come out with 20 percent withheld from districts.
The suit notes a $2.5 billion state aid payment to districts is scheduled for Sept. 30, the first major payment of core operating funding for the current school year, and the one state budget officials indicated would not include a withholding.
“Here, the Legislature essentially abandoned its role, ceding significant budgetary powers to the Executive,” the complaint argues. “The Legislature’s actions were not only irrational, but also unconstitutional.”
The union’s attorneys argue the state could tap around $2.5 billion in “rainy day reserves” to offset the funding shortfall to districts. They also point to $4.5 billion “in cash reserves and monetary settlement … (that) provides the state with a total of approximately $7 billion … to offset cuts to public schools.”
The suit asks for an order demanding the funding be released and barring any future withholdings.
The suit also argues the budget reductions prevent districts from offering students the “sound, basic education,” a constitutional obligation that rests with the state Legislature.
“It’s hard to define sound and basic education, but there are standards out there that need to be met and our kids have challenges and needs in order to meet those standards,” Benaquisto said. “I do fear that it’s that much harder now to bring our students to the standard, but we will strive to do our best.”