Schenectady High School students know something is amiss with the budget math – or at least the way it affects them. They don’t have to look far to find that other schools — schools suffering under the same pandemic, schools that share the same zip code as Schenectady — have managed to offer in-person instruction to their students this year.
“We are able to send kids in other districts to school, why couldn’t we go to school?” Schenectady High School junior Ah-Jhanay Daise asked in a recent interview.
The answer to her question requires an explanation of state aid payment schedules, state revenue projections and the rapidly-changing political dynamics in Washington D.C. The answer underscores how the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequities in how schools are funded and highlights how political rhetoric can shape the on-the-ground realities for school districts.
But for Schenectady High School students, the answer offers little to help them overcome the strain of learning from home, day after day, stuck in a loop of virtual classes as their final days as a Schenectady student tick by.
“It’s sad, it’s like you are being robbed of something you can’t even help,” said Tabatha Adair, a Schenectady High School senior, who in a recent interview said for her school has long been a safe environment, “where I go to escape what’s going on in life.”
Unlike other area students, Schenectady high-schoolers have had the schoolhouse doors closed on them since the start of the school year — not due to COVID health concerns but to the potential budget havoc wreaked by the state’s devastated economy and Schenectady’s heavy reliance on state aid to fund its over $200 million district budget.
“We are being robbed of something no one else is, no one else has had it completely taken away,” Tabatha said. “If it was any other district, there would have been more fight for them. It feels like there was no fight for us.”
Tabatha, who said she leaves the home to work almost daily, highlighted how her own routines reveal the priorities of a country that has argued over whether bars and gyms can reopen, while educators managing online programs have entirely lost track of scores of students.
“I go to work everyday, but I can’t go to school. Kids are going to baseball practice, but they can’t go to school,” she said. “It kind of falls back on what we value as a society.”
Each day Tabatha and her twin sister help their two younger siblings with school work while their mom is at work, making sure they log in to online classes and helping to manage any technical problems, including their own. (“Do you know how many times my wifi stops working during a test or something?” she said at one point.)
The family recently moved and now all have bedrooms, she said, but the four of them spent the first part of remote learning cloistered around a folding table. Tabatha and her twin sister share many of the same classes, and she said their microphones would often create crazy-sounding echoes. Sometimes one computer would be slower than the other, setting the teacher’s presentation slightly askew.
Tabatha, who is pursuing the advanced International Baccalaureate degree in high school, and others on the similar track, said the monotone and disconnected nature of remote learning, coupled with isolation and the stress of the pandemic, have created an untenable learning environment for students.
“It feels like you are living the same day over and over again,” she said. “It takes a lot of self-motivation. I have never found myself as challenged with school as this year.”
The students, some of whom said they don’t expect to see the inside of their school again in 2021, pleaded their case for even the smallest opportunity to engage with classmates and teachers face-to-face, suggesting the school could host activities or programs that give students a chance to cycle into the building – even if only infrequently.
While health and safety measures implemented in schools across the state have forced districts to shift to all-remote models for periods of time, Schenectady district officials shuttered secondary school buildings to students, citing the potential of devastating state funding cuts that Gov. Andrew Cuomo said would be possible throughout the school year. Where Niskayuna and Saratoga students may have opted to learn remotely this year or have seen in-person schedules disrupted by quarantines, Schenectady high school students were never given a choice.
The worst of the threatened cuts have yet to materialize, but over 70 percent of the district’s expected state aid payments for the year remain outstanding now over halfway through the current budget year. And Schenectady district leaders, including interim Superintendent Aaron Bochniak and school board President John Foley, as recently as last week said they still think it’s possible the district loses out on 20 percent of state aid this year, the possible $28.5 million aid reduction that officials responded to by reducing expenditures by a comparable amount at the start of the school year.
Those budget cuts included over 400 staff layoffs and the elimination of numerous student support programs that have been developed in recent years to address the district’s persistent academic shortfalls.
District officials are beginning the process of planning to ramp up some staff and programs as early as next month, but Bochniak said too much uncertainty still remains in the district’s finances to commit to any specifics.
“I wish I could say we have a better picture or better understanding of how to plan, but it’s still an uncertain situation, and it could be volatile,” Bochniak said in an interview last week. “While we planned for the worst-case scenario and while there have been some funds realized, the bulk of our payments are still due for the remainder of the year.”
Schenectady state aid payments, which fund nearly 70 percent of the district’s overall budget, are backloaded into the second half of the calendar year, leaving nearly $112 million in expected state aid yet to be paid this year and still under threat of reduction from state officials.
The district received just over $41 million in state aid payments since August, including payments for last school year that are used by the district in this school year, according to a summary of Schenectady’s received and projected state aid payments provided by the district. The payments so far are about 4 percent – or $1.8 million – less than what district officials expected if all payments were made in full, a far cry from the feared 20 percent reductions. But the bulk of state aid payments still remain. If those remaining payments are made in full – including five state aid payments of over $12 million each due in February, March, April, May and June – the district would see another nearly $112 million in state aid this year. But there is no guarantee the payments will come through in their entirety, and Cuomo reiterated his threat of potential 20 percent aid cuts again last week, leaving Schenectady leaders unsure of just how much money they will have to spend this year.
Until state officials provide assurances about the actual funding the district will see this year, Bochniak said it would be irresponsible for the district to rehire staff or reinstitute programs for students. He can’t pay an employee just 80 percent of a paycheck or hire them back on optimism the district will receive enough state aid to fully fund their position, Bochniak has pointed out at school board meetings. He has said students need stability and consistency and he doesn’t want to establish and then close programs down.
“What we are really talking about is the livelihood of our kids and the livelihood of our staff,” Bochniak said. “Those are the things at stake, and they are getting caught up in the semantics.”
Signs of hope
Cuomo is set to outline a budget proposal Tuesday, and while the proposal will cover next school year, education leaders hope he will also clarify what, if any, aid reductions will happen for school districts this current school year. Cuomo’s budget proposal – which follows a series of State of the State addresses he said he rewrote with more optimism after Democrats won a narrow Senate majority in the Georgia runoffs earlier this month – comes amid some positive signs for Schenectady’s budget.
With Democrats set to take charge of the Senate later this week, the prospects of a new infusion of federal stimulus to bolster New York’s coffers have improved. Congress last month already passed new aid to schools across the country, with Schenectady expected to receive around $20 million in new federal money. And President-Elect Joe Biden takes over Wednesday and has already outlined a massive stimulus proposal.
Moreover, the state’s own revenue picture has improved since Cuomo and his budget officials first outlined the potential need for the 20 percent cuts: state tax receipts fell $2.5 billion during the first nine months of the state fiscal year compared to the previous year, but state budget officials had projected a revenue shortfall $1.8 billion deeper, according to the latest monthly state cash report from state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.
State budget officials in a statement last week indicated more details on this year’s school aid will be offered in the governor’s budget proposal for next school year aid and again highlighted the potential of aid reductions if more federal funding was not forthcoming.
“Should we have to make reductions, which would be a last resort, we will take district need and the federal funds enacted in December into account with further details available in the Executive Budget that’s due by January 19,” Freeman Kloppott, a Division of Budget spokesperson said in the statement. “We look forward to working with new leadership in Washington to ensure New York State gets the funding it needs to continue to support critical services and lead the nation’s recovery.”
Juliet Benaquisto, president of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers, earlier this month in comments to the school board highlighted the district’s reserve funds, as well as recent state and national political developments, and called on board members to begin restoring the district’s budget cuts.
“I urge you to consider the funding levels we have received this school year to date, the more optimistic statements our governor is making today, the optimistic turn of political events… consider the years of surplus (the district) has accumulated, and begin to restore the programs and supports our students desperately need,” she said in public comments at the board’s Jan. 6 meeting.
The governor’s budget proposal will offer signals and clues about what the financial landscape for districts looks like going forward, but won’t answer every outstanding question. Education analysts are particularly keyed into whether the governor will offset federal funds guaranteed to districts with comparable state aid reductions (as happened in the spring with the first round of federal stimulus aid) and just how he plans to “take district need into account” if reductions are necessary.
“I think things are certainly more hopeful now than they were three or four months ago, but the the details of when and how that is applied and how that might impact the state side of funding, those are unanswered questions,” said Brian Cechnicki, who served as the state Education Department director of education finance until taking over as executive director of the statewide Association of School Business Officials this month.
Cechnicki said school business officials across the state felt like the governor has offered “mixed messages” as he outlined the potential for drastic budget cuts while also distancing himself from the consequences when districts acted to reduce their budgets as a result.
“The governor certainly at that time was quite vocal and frequent in being persistent in being vocal… Schenectady and other districts took him at his word that was what he would have to do,” Cechnicki said of how Cuomo communicated the potential aid cuts. “It put them between a rock and a hard place.”
‘It’s not the same connection, not the same energy’
Ah-Jhanay Daise, a junior at Schenectady High School, said over the summer she planned to opt for a hybrid learning option – a mix of in-person and remote instruction – hoping the community would be safe enough to allow students back into school.
But instead she learned no such option would exist.
“It’s really overwhelming because being a needy district that’s high with poverty, we need all that money, we need the classes and everything they offer at all levels,” she said.
Ah-Jhanay and other students said many of their classmates, and sometimes themselves, are struggling to engage in classes fully or at all. They said some students who in the past were A students weren’t showing up to classes at all.
“It’s not the same connection, it’s not the same energy,” she said of the remote environment. “I feel different going to a teacher in person as opposed to online.”
She credited her classmates who have continued to push through the school year and said even though in the past going to school sometimes felt like “50-50” proposition, she promised to always value the inside of a school.
“There are a good number of students in my class that even though they feel the same, they are pushing through, and I respect them for it,” she said. “Now, if I was able to be back in the building, I will never take that for granted ever again.”
Ah-Jhanay also highlighted the fundamental unfairness so obvious to her and her classmates.
“They know we need this help, they know we need to be in school and we are just not getting anything,” she said. “We are living in the same world, the same pandemic. Niskayuna, you are literally down the street and you can go to school and we can’t.”
Educators like Shireen Bogue, who was laid off from her teaching position at Mont Pleasant Middle School at the start of the school year, stand ready to provide that help. Bogue, who before taking time off to raise her kids taught at Shaker High School for six years, taught in Schenectady for the past three years, working as one of a battalion of educators who offered students extra support in the district’s “general education continuum.” Working as a co-teacher in an English Language Arts classroom, Bogue focused on a certain group of students in need of extra attention but also teamed up to help manage the overall classroom. With two teachers in the room, each student could get twice the focused instruction as before.
“Having two teachers and having two teachers with ELA as their backgrounds, I really think kids got more individual instruction,” she said in a recent interview. “We were able to divide and conquer…. We were able to deal with a lot of stuff, we had our own little community.”
When school buildings closed in the spring due to the pandemic, Bogue volunteered to distribute meals on school buses and staff pick-up stations outside of schools. Over the summer, she and the teacher she co-taught with worked on their own time to map out a plan for the new school year.
Then, just days before the new school year was set to start and as rumors started to circulate that teachers were going to be laid off, Bogue got an email inviting her to a mass meeting with the superintendent. Bochniak told dozens of educators they were laid off.
“It was traumatizing, I don’t know what is the right way to put it… but I was in a depression, I couldn’t believe we were all being let go,” she recalled. “I created such a happy working environment and it was just gone.”
Bogue, whose husband still works in the district, said she was fortunate to not have to immediately search for a new job, as many of the laid off staff have, but she described feeling lost and resentful without a class to return to when school restarted.
“I am going to be patient, we are ok financially, not great, but I’m holding out hope that in September we are back in person,” she said, noting that she planned to stick with Schenectady. “It sounds cliche, but I felt like I was making a difference. I feel like where I can make the most amount of difference is in Schenectady.”
School board members interviewed for this story largely echoed the need for more certainty about funding levels before moving forward with restoring budget cuts, but some members also signaled they do see signs that the district’s financial landscape could be shifting for the better.
“We do not yet know how much money we will have for programming, we don’t know yet,” board President John Foley said, highlighting the fact the district was still waiting on over 70 percent of its state aid payments. “We can have all the pans in the world, but if we don’t have the money.”
Board member Bernice Rivera said she was “eagerly waiting” to get more information from the state, so the district could move forward with decisions about funding for the rest of the year. But she also pointed to a new president and Senate as a positive sign and called for approaching the upcoming budget season with a mentality of what was possible – rather than what the district needs to cut.
“I am hopeful with the new (Biden) administration that there is some opportunity for us to able to make different decisions,” Rivera said. Is there certainty? No, but I am hopeful with how things are changing with the new administration, possibly there is hope. That’s how I would like to go into the new budget season: What are the possibilities?”
Board member Princella Learry, who suffered a lay off from the school district during budget cuts after the Great Recession, said voting to approve the layoffs was the worst thing she ever had to do. She also pointed to signs of hope.
“When you have a president saying education is important, acknowledging the impact of the budget on education and the impact of laid-off workers, and he wants to fix it, that was a sigh of relief,” Learry said. “Given all the different things that have been happening recently, be optimistic, we want our students back in school, and we are going to try, at least I’m going to try, as a board we are all going to try to make that happen.”
Chaz Ramlal, another Schenectady High School senior, said he spent the summer “constantly checking the district’s website” for a hint of back-to-school plans. When the choice was taken away, it seemed like maybe so would all of his senior year.
“I felt like all of my hope for going back into school and having the in-school feeling went down the drain during the summer. I’ve started to live with the idea that this is my reality for the next months or so until I graduate,” he said.
Ramlal – who highlighted the many challenges of keeping up with hours of online classes followed by hours of online homework, the difficulty of applying for college without a guidance office to drop by and the strain remote education has had on yearslong friendships – said he is worried this year will set back him and his many classmates.
“I definitely feel like we are at a disadvantage through basically everything, teaching and learning and retaining information,” he said. “It feels like we are all at a disadvantage in our district. Everything we have done so far this year has been a disadvantage.”