SCHENECTADY — The Schenectady NAACP chapter on Wednesday called on the Schenectady school board to freeze any new layoffs and to begin reinstating some of the hundreds of teachers and staff members laid off in recent weeks.
Citing data that showed Schenectady students are behind other students in the state prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization’s leaders blared a warning siren that the challenges facing the city’s students will only be exacerbated in the wake of more than 400 layoffs this school year.
Addressing the school board directly at its Wednesday meeting, leaders of the local group highlighted the disproportionate impact of the layoffs of Black and brown staff in the district – largely driven by seniority rules – and the consequences for the broader Schenectady community, where many of the laid off employees live and raise their families.
They also pointed to the all-remote learning being used for middle school and high school students, sharing their concerns that it would set those students back even further.
“Now with students being out of school since March and with the layoffs, the futures of our students are extremely dismal,” Cynthia Farmer, a member of the group’s education committee, told the school board during Wednesday’s meeting.
When state budget officials started to withhold 20 percent of some aid payments to districts in July, August and early September, district officials in Schenectady projected a $28.5 million loss of state aid if the reductions continued. Fearing the budget shortfall, district officials and the school board instituted the hundreds of layoffs and closed school buildings to most secondary students as they retrenched for the potential of a multi-year stretch of stressed state funding.
The layoffs, though, were not forced by an immediate cash flow problem in the district, and state officials made full aid payments at the end of September and have indicated a plan to do so this month as well. In an article in late September, state Budget Director Robert Mujica wrote that districts like Schenectady that had begun major layoffs prior to the start of the school year were acting “prematurely,” even though he was unable to offer more specifics about the cuts that may ultimately come to fruition.
Local school officials also find themselves in the middle of a national political fight over more federal stimulus: New York state leaders have said 20-percent reductions in state aid to schools will be necessary if the federal government does not provide new stimulus funding to states. Although talks continue between Democratic leaders in Congress and the White House over more aid, Senate Republicans have been opposed.
NAACP leaders say the city’s schoolchildren are taking the brunt of funding battles, going without critical support programs that had fallen short of student needs prior to the budget cuts.
“Our children have already experienced a considerable amount of trauma from the twin pandemic of COVID-19 and racism,” Schenectady NAACP President Odo Butler said in comments to the board. “Our children’s futures are at stake.”
Butler acknowledged that the district faced budget challenges, but argued the district still had access to the funding needed to retain some of the positions that were eliminated.
“We understand that some layoffs are necessary, we get that, however, we believe most of the dismissals may be unnecessary or premature,” Butler said. “The interim superintendent has said these layoffs are unavoidable. The Schenectady NAACP disagrees.”
Butler and other members of the group called for stronger community engagement from the school district and outlined questions about what impact the layoffs would have on future budgets, whether the district had money in its unrestricted reserve fund, as well as the district’s plan for catching students up when they do return to in-person school.
Juliet Benaquisto, president of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers, echoed the calls for reinstating staff positions, also pointing to the district’s ability to continue funding the positions despite the state funding uncertainty and urging people listening to the meeting to vote in the upcoming election.
“For now, the money is sitting in our account, and I think we should spend and deal with what is in front of us down the road when that time comes,” she said.
Board members thanked the speakers for their comments but did not adopt the layoff freeze the group had sought. Interim Superintendent Aaron Bochniak reiterated the potential of a major financial blow to the district this school year and highlighted the continued uncertainty district leaders face.
“Right now, the picture is still somewhat pretty grim,” he said.