School districts to receive millions in new federal aid; Tilted toward high-poverty districts

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Schools districts are set to receive millions of dollars in new federal stimulus aid, with the latest funding tilted heavily toward high-poverty districts.

Across the Capital Region districts will all see an infusion of federal aid coming on top of other recent stimulus packages that included direct aid to districts, but the per-pupil funding increases will range widely as federal lawmakers look to bolster the highest-need districts. 

The per-student allotments of federal aid range from $260 per student in Shenendehowa to over $5,600 per student in Fort Plain, according to district-level funding estimates released by Sen. Chuck Schumer’s office Wednesday. 

(Schumer’s estimates were combined with preliminary school enrollments for the 2020-2021 school year to calculate per-pupil funding levels.)   

Schenectady City School District is estimated to get nearly $38 million from the bill, or just over $4,000 per student, adding to another $17 million in federal aid approved in December. Albany schools would see nearly $45 million in the latest stimulus bill, nearly $5,000 per student. By comparison, Shenendehowa schools, which has a comparable number of students to Albany and Schenectady but far less poverty, would receive about $2.4 million in new federal aid. 

The school districts across six local counties – Albany, Schenectady, Saratoga, Montgomery, Fulton and Schoharie – are estimated to receive over $180 million combined, under the funding approved in Washington along party lines earlier this month.

“COVID brought unprecedented challenges that have cost a year of learning and development for students—challenges disproportionately felt by students of color, students from low-income families, students with disabilities, and more,” Schumer said in a statement. “Help is on the way for Upstate New York schools put behind the curve by the pandemic.”

New York’s total allotment under the latest bill was nearly $9 billion, at least 90 percent of which must be directly distributed to school districts using the same federal funding formula used to designate how longstanding federal funds targeting high-need districts have been allocated. The state must also reserve part of its federal funding to use for interventions to address learning loss, as well as for summer enrichment and afterschool programs, money that could ultimately make its way back to districts.

School districts are required to devote at least 20 percent of their new aid to address the learning loss educators expect many students have suffered over the past year due to deeply disrupted learning environments. For the rest of their aid, districts will be given a wide berth to use the money to respond to the academic, social and emotional impacts of the pandemic on students; to expand the use of education technology; to improve indoor air quality and harden facilities against infectious diseases; to establish summer and afterschoool programs and more.

Districts can use the money to cover expenditures dating to March 2020, when the pandemic was declared a national emergency, and will have until the 2023-2024 school year to spend the money, though many of the specifics remain to be detailed for districts. School district budgets also benefit from the state and local government portion of the federal stimulus, because the $12.5 billion dedicated to the state’s overall budget, as well as other targeted funding across the state, will help stave off state education aid cuts that otherwise would have been necessary to cover deficits. 

School districts are currently working on budgets for next school year, which will likely include nearly $4 billion statewide in the federal aid to districts approved in December. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and both legislative chambers included the December federal aid in their various budget proposals but have not included plans to dole out the more significant funding approved this month. (Other portions of the federal aid is put to use in the state budget plans.) But it’s possible some of the March funding starts to flow into district coffers by next school year.

Brian Cechnicki, executive director of the New York Association of School Business Officials, said district leaders should be factoring the latest federal aid into planning for next year’s school budgets, while also working to ensure plans are in place to phase out the federal aid without causing disruption. The business officials and other education advocacy groups are pressing different paths to provide districts flexibility to manage the infusion of aid. Lawmakers are considering plans to increase the share of a district’s budget that can be carried over as a cash balance from one school year to the next, and it’s possible the federal aid could be exempt from the voter-approved spending limits if classified as essentially grant funding. Districts want to have the flexibility so they can spread spending out to minimize a steep budget drop off after the federal money is used up. 

“I don’t think we are going to be in a situation where districts are going to have budget votes without any clue of what this looks like,” Cechnicki said of districts starting to think through how to use the federal aid.

In Schenectady the federal funding – around $54 million between the December and March bills  – will go a long way as the district works to rebuild its staff and programming for students after scaling back significantly in the fall. It will enable the district to implement new targeted programs over the coming years – potentially as a new superintendent takes charge.

Acting Schenectady Superintendent Aaron Bochniak on Wednesday said he was optimistic about the budget picture but was still awaiting more specifics about how the funding will work.

“We are clearly thrilled to hear that there is more money coming to our already resource-starved district,” Bochniak said Wednesday. “We certainly need support services for our kids.”

Bochniak said the district will look to use the money to purchase learning materials and supplies while also expanding a broad system of student supports that utilize teachers, counselors and social workers and other specialists to provide student services on a sliding scale of intensity depending on different student needs. The district would also look to spend the money without adding major new recurring costs it could not afford in the long run, he said, precipitating staff cuts in future years.

While planning for the incoming federal aid, Schenectady district officials are also working to spend a surplus of money in this year’s budget that resulted after officials retrenched spending in the fall in expectation of massive state aid cuts that didn’t fully materialize. Bochniak said some of the surplus would be used to replace furniture and equipment paint classrooms and public spaces in mass across the district – the types of expenditures the district often defers. 

The wide difference in relative aid from the federal package will also translate into the relative amount of planning and energy districts will have to put into spending their cut of the federal package. The state’s wealthier districts may also have to combat a perception of a massive windfall of federal dollars as they look to spend their new aid.

“When you are talking about a significant investment from the federal government, the significance of that will certainly vary district by district,” Cechnicki said of the varied impacts the aid will have for districts. 

Niskayuna Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. at a board meeting earlier this month set limited expectations for how far the money would stretch. He said it could be used to upgrade air filtration systems and hire a “teacher or two” to help support students who fell behind. The district is estimated to receive nearly $1.2 million in new federal aid from the March bill.

“We have to be careful and thoughtful about how federal aid is used… so we can avoid that funding cliff,” Tangorra said. “We want to really think about this budget as a long term financial plan.”

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, News, Saratoga County, Schenectady County

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