The Schenectady school board on Wednesday recalled about two dozen laid off teachers and support staff to commence a pre-kindergarten program, the potential first step in re-establishing tens of millions of dollars in programs and staffing slashed at the start of the school year.
Interim Schenectady Superintendent Aaron Bochniak said the district was confident it would receive all of its state aid this school year and could start calling back more staff as soon as next week. As the district restores programming, he said, educators will focus on increasing in-person learning opportunities, shrinking virtual class sizes and adding instructional supports like tutoring and other academic interventions.
“We do have to be careful about how we do this… but we are committed to wanting to do it and will be creative in our approach,” Bochniak said at Wednesday’s board meeting.
The staff members the board approved for recall on Wednesday, some of who started earlier this week to stand up the pre-k program, included two assistant school principals, eight elementary school teachers and 17 paraprofessionals.
Board members also unanimously voiced support for reinstating positions and programs – the first time a consensus emerged among board members that they were confident enough in the district’s financial footing to restore the cuts imposed in September.
“We want to see our teachers back, we want to see our paras back, we want to see our administrators back,” board member Bernice Rivera said.
The school board in September laid off over 400 teachers, administrators and support staff, with district officials citing the devastating impact that would result if Gov. Andrew Cuomo had to follow through on threatened aid cuts as high as 20 percent. The district also suspended its pre-k programs and transitioned all students in grades 7-12 to remote learning, where they have stayed for the length of the school year.
While some state aid payments to districts were reduced, particularly earlier in the year, the worst-case-scenario Schenectady braced for has not materialized, and state budget officials in recent weeks have made clear school districts will be paid in full this year and be refunded for earlier reduced payments.
Now, districts officials are looking to rehire staff and restore supports for students, while also managing the multi-year budget uncertainty all districts face. They also have to manage the same health and safety precautions – masking and distancing – in place in all schools across the state. Many families in the district opted out of any in-person instruction, but many secondary students have said they want a chance to return to school buildings for some in-person learning. It’s still not clear how long before that may be a reality.
Juliet Benaquisto, president of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers, before Wednesday’s meeting said she was happy to see positions brought back but wanted to see the cuts restored more quickly.
“My priority is that we should be doing everything we can to reinstate every individual that’s been laid off,” Benaquisto said. “It’s good to see some people starting to be recalled back; it will feel better when we have more.”
She noted that the layoffs in the fall occurred over a short period of time and said she expected the restoration plan to have been developed over the months since the budget cuts were made. (Bochniak said administrators started working on the plans last week.)
“It doesn’t feel like they are moving at the same speed they did when they eliminated staff,” Benaquisto said. “I would have hoped that this was work that was being done all a long.”
Jamaica Miles, a community activist and parent of two students in the district, at the start of the meeting urged the school board to reinstate the positions and called on district leaders to immediately outline a plan to do so.
“End the needless suffering that our students are going through right now,” she pleaded with board members.