While the Schenectady City School District may be able to open its pre-kindergarten program next month for the first time this school year, officials still did not commit to a broader rehiring of laid off staff or reopening school buildings to middle and high school students.
Schenectady interim Superintendent Aaron Bochniak on Wednesday said the district had recently received its first payment under a state pre-kindergarten grant and was working to open the program to at least some students in February.
While Bochniak said district officials were still working out the details of restoring the pre-K program, he said they planned to have both in-person and remote instruction ready to go in February. He said more details would be released in the coming days.
However, in a short budget update at Wednesday night’s school board meeting, Bochniak said he still needed definitive assurances from state officials about how much state aid the district would receive this school year before moving forward with a broader restoration of around $28 million in programs and staff cut at the beginning of the academic year. The district slashed its budget in the face of threatened reductions in state aid payments to the district, only some of which have come to fruition. However, it’s still not clear whether state officials will reduce any future aid payments to Schenectady.
“We don’t know when or how or where it will be paid back, whether it should be expected this fiscal year, next fiscal year or over multiple years,” Bochniak said of some state funding that has already been withheld this year. “While we want to restore programs, we really need the assurance that funding isn’t going to be withheld for the 2020-21 school year.”
School board President John Foley voiced a similar sentiment at Wednesday’s meeting, explaining that if the district got clear direction from state budget officials about how much aid it can expect, it would be in a position to plan for the remainder of the year.
“We are anxious for the governor and the budget office to commit to how much money we will have,” Foley said during the meeting. “A lot of this is about the commitment from the state to our budget… it’s about what the income will actually be.”
Even as state funding remains uncertain, some signs of hope for the district’s financial picture have emerged in recent days: federal lawmakers passed over $50 billion in direct aid to school districts last month, including over $4 billion for New York state districts, and two U.S. Senate races in Georgia on Tuesday flipped control of that body to the slimmest of Democratic majorities. Democrats have indicated far more support for boosting state budgets, which would help alleviate some of the biggest funding challenges in Schenectady. Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday morning suggested the flip in Senate control would be a boon to the state as it looks to close a massive budget deficit.
“The metaphorical sun is shining in New York,” Cuomo said the morning after the Georgia election, suggesting a Democrat-controlled Senate would boost the state’s budget.
While the Schenectady City School District is also due around $20 million from the recent federal stimulus, state officials will ultimately control when and how that money is disbursed, over how many years and whether it is used to offset state aid reductions. Similarly, the timing of any new federal aid – whether in the form of direct aid to districts or support to offset state cuts – is unclear and may not help the district this school year, which just crossed the halfway point in terms of district budgets.
Bochniak, who outlined a budget calendar Wednesday as district officials set out to develop next year’s budget, said district officials would begin making plans to restore staff and programs in the event the district’s finances became more defined. He said any restoration of programs would include prioritizing the most important investments and ramping them up over time.
Juliet Benaquisto, president of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers, addressed school board members at Wednesday’s meeting and called on them to consider recent positive development, as well as the district reserve funds, and begin efforts to restore programs and staff.
“I urge you to consider the funding level we have received this school year to date, the more optimistic statements our governor is making today, the optimistic turn of political events that will undoubtedly be better for public education than the alternative… and begin to restore the programs and supports our students desperately need.”