The state Division of Budget released a statement Thursday saying school districts will receive full aid payments this school year, including a restoration of earlier payments to districts that had been reduced.
“No funds will be withheld” from school districts, Division of Budget spokesman Freeman Klopott said in the release.
Klopott also highlighted a portion of the 450-page executive budget financial plan released earlier this week, where budget officials indicate they plan to rely on $0 in “school aid/local district funding adjustment” to close the state’s budget deficit and said previously withheld or reduced payments to districts would be refunded by March 31.
Schenectady interim Superintendent Aaron Bochniak, who on Wednesday agreed with a school board member that it was possible the district still faced the potential of a 20-percent state aid cut by the end of the year, on Thursday said the message from the budget office was promising news but that he would need those assurances to come directly from state officials.
At the beginning of the school year, Schenectady City School District officials, facing reduced state aid and fearing even deeper reductions, slashed about $28 million in spending, laid off over 400 teachers and staff members and closed school buildings to secondary students. Gov. Andrew Cuomo at the time said state aid could be reduced by as much as 20 percent without federal support. Since those threats and layoffs, the state has fully funded most, but not all, payments to school districts this year. On Tuesday, Cuomo and his budget officials continued to walk back the 20-percent threat as they outlined Cuomo’s budget proposal for next school year. On Thursday they were explicit that school districts can expect to receive the funding levels outlined in last year’s enacted state budget.
“That’s promising news, and I will work with the Division of Budget to get some assurances, so as we work to restore programs and services, we understand to what extent we can do that,” Bochniak said Thursday.
Bochniak said he and other administrators next week will start planning how to restore programs and services for students, eyeing the start of the new semester next month to begin offering students some new programs and service, some of which would require rehiring some staff. Bochniak said the plans will prioritize increasing opportunities for students to receive in-person instruction; lowering class sizes in virtual classes; creating academic intervention and tutoring programs for students, and; expanding technology resources in the district. He said district officials would create programs that could be scaled up as the district’s financial landscape becomes more clear.
During Wednesday night’s school board meeting, which followed Tuesday’s comments from state Budget Director Robert Mujica that 20-percent cuts would not be necessary this year, board member Cathy Lewis said she thought the 20-percent cut was still possible.
On Thursday state budget officials indicated they didn’t understand why Schenectady district leaders were still operating under the belief that those cuts were still possible.
“We don’t know what’s happening with the school district,” Division of Budget spokesperson Klopott stated Thursday. “It is locally controlled and they make all hiring and firing decisions. We have made it clear that the state will be paying 100% of P-12 education aid in the current year — no funds will be withheld.”
Bochniak countered that the state budget office’s messaging has been far from clear in recent months, noting that he has not received clear communication from state officials indicating how much of the district’s outstanding aid payments would come through this year. He said some aid payments to the district have been reduced and he doesn’t know when those payments will be refunded or to what extent.
“I’m really glad that they are saying the check is in the mail, but we need to know that,” Bochniak said.
Some community members and the district’s teachers union leader have called on district officials to begin restoring budget cuts and rehiring staff. Jamaica Miles, a local activist and Schenectady parent, said education advocates were successful in fighting back against mid-year budget cuts to schools and said Schenectady district officials should move immediately to mitigate the harm being done to students still suffering under the district’s budget cuts and layoffs.
“It’s traumatic and every single day is another day that our children are falling further and further behind,” Miles said. “Our district has not only the responsibility but the opportunity to change that right now.”