Foss: Decision to close Schenectady schools a big mistake

Students, teachers and parents from Schenectady High and other local schools protest outside the state Capitol on Sept. 4

Students, teachers and parents from Schenectady High and other local schools protest outside the state Capitol on Sept. 4

What will it take to get the Schenectady City School District to admit it made a mistake? 

The district has been behaving as if a 20 percent reduction in state aid payments is imminent since last fall, when it slashed $28 million in spending, laid off more than 400 teachers and staff, and took the unprecedented and highly unusual step of shutting down in-person education to thousands of students in grades 7-12. 

Those actions were harsh, and also unnecessary. 

Months into the school year, the steep cuts to state aid that prompted the district’s rash actions have yet to materialize and now appear to be off the table. 

Rather than celebrate this happy news and announce an immediate plan for rehiring staff and reopening schools, district officials and board members maintain that the state must do more to assure them the cuts won’t happen. 

At this point, it’s worth asking what, exactly, it would take to convince those officials of something that’s plainly obvious. 

Perhaps nothing short of Gov. Andrew Cuomo leading them downtown to a bank vault, opening it up, showing them a pile of money labeled “Schenectady schools” and signing a contract guaranteeing they’ll get it in his own blood would do the trick. 

The governor’s budget presentation appeared to eliminate the threat of a big cut to state aid and the state Division of Budget explicitly stated that school districts will receive their full aid payments for this school year, including a restoration of earlier payments that had been reduced. 

Those reductions are a far cry from the $28.5 million in cuts district officials insisted were still a real possibility as recently as last week, despite all evidence to the contrary. 

To date, the district’s state aid payments for the 2020-2021 school year are about 4 percent less than what district officials anticipated, a reduction of roughly $1.8 million. That’s not nothing. But when you consider the massive size of the school district’s annual budget — about $200 million — it is a fairly negligible amount. 

The small reduction to the district’s state aid, combined with the state’s ongoing insistence that cuts to school aid are a last resort, makes Schenectady’s decision to preemptively shutter schools and fire teachers all the more troubling, and bizarre.   

All along, the district has had enough money to open its high school and middle schools, but officials have cited uncertainty to justify keeping these buildings closed and depriving older students of an in-person education indefinitely. 

We’re all dealing with uncertainty right now. 

What makes the Schenectady school district something of an outlier is that it has responded to this uncertainty by taking the most drastic and damaging course of action possible, even as state officials sought to reassure them it wasn’t necessary. 

In September, state Budget Director Robert Mujica penned an op-ed, printed in the Albany Times Union, saying school districts in the Capital Region were “acting prematurely as they undertake mass layoffs; the fact is the state hasn’t withheld 20 percent of school aid. We all need to work together to fight for the federal assistance we deserve. If the federal government forces us to reduce spending, we’ll protect high-need districts from the impact as much as possible.” 

Why school officials in Schenectady, Albany and Lansingburgh chose to ignore Mujica and conduct themselves as if the worst-case budget scenario was already unfolding is beyond me. 

What is clear is that the children and teachers in these communities would have been much better off if their schools had remained open, and that the flawed reasoning that led to their closure deserves scrutiny. 

A 20 percent cut to state aid payments to school districts would have been devastating. But it didn’t happen. And it isn’t going to. 

In fact, the governor’s budget proposal for next year would increase the Schenectady City School District’s state aid by $12 million, or 8.5 percent. 

Interim Schenectady schools superintendent Aaron Bochniak told The Daily Gazette last week that administrators will start figuring out how to restore in-person programming and services for its older students. 

That’s good news for the many, many students who haven’t had access to in-person education since last March, and officials need to move as quickly as possible to get them back in the classroom. The district’s 7-12 schools have been closed for a long time, and reopening them this year is imperative, or ought to be.  

What’s tragic is that they could have been open all along.

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.


Categories: News, Opinion, Sara Foss, Schenectady County

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