Schenectady

Schenectady school board weighs how to spend $60 million federal windfall

Schenectady City Schools Interim Superintendent Aaron Bochniak,
PHOTOGRAPHER:

Schenectady City Schools Interim Superintendent Aaron Bochniak,

New reading and math specialists for every Schenectady school. Thousands of hours each year in before and after school tutoring. Dozens of new social workers, psychologists and school counselors. A $1 million expansion of summer enrichment programs.

The Schenectady school board on Wednesday started discussions over how to spend an estimated $60 million in federal aid expected to flow to the district over the next four years.

Interim Superintendent Aaron Bochniak during a special budget meeting Wednesday night outlined for the school board a suggested path to using the money over the coming years. He proposed thinking of the federal aid as a massive grant – about $15 million per year over four years – and focusing on expanding student support services like reading and math specialists, tutoring, after school programs and providing more academic support during a summer enrichment program.

The proposed investments underscore the scope of the new federal aid. Using the money each of the next four school years, under Bochniak’s framework, the district could hire one math and one reading specialist for each school building, 32 new teachers; deliver 32,000 hours of afterschool, evening and weekend tutoring each year; add another $1 million annually into student supports during a summer enrichment program; hire three dozen social workers, psychologists and school counselors across the district, and; establish a potential $1.6 million annual contract with a community-based organization to provide student enrichment and childcare after school and during school breaks.  

Bochniak also outlined the potential for a $5 million annual contract with BOCES to build out a network of overlapping student supports, possibly relying on outside vendors to staff specialized programs within the district.

“What works for one kid might not work for all kids,” Bochniak said of the need for varying types of student supports. “So there will have to be multiple types of interventions.” 

The funding also presents a tricky fiscal challenge as district officials look to spend down the federal aid without taking on a lot of new long-term spending that could have to be dramatically pulled back once the federal aid runs out if state aid doesn’t grow to replace it.

To brace for the potential funding “cliff,” Bochniak said the federally-supported positions could be hired on a special waiver that allows districts to earmark positions to temporary funding to bypass tenure rules. The district, using the so-called “Feinerman waiver” established in state Education Department precedent, would essentially put job seekers on notice that the position may no longer exist after the federal money runs out. But teachers hired under the waiver would not make progress toward a tenured position with the district as they would if hired for a position supported under the district general fund.

“The waiver would at least allow people to know that funding could potentially go away,” Bochniak said.

Some board members expressed concerns about using the waiver to hire new staff, and Bochniak said the board didn’t have to use the waiver, especially if state lawmakers commit to significantly boost foundation aid, core state school funding, over the next three years. 

Juliet Benaquisto, president of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers, on Thursday said Wednesday night’s presentation was the first she had heard of Bochniak’s idea of using the waiver to hire educators under the federal aid. She said she was concerned the approach would lead to teachers in effectively the same positions falling under widely different protections.  

“We could legitimately have two reading teachers side by side and the only difference is where the funding comes in,” she said. “I have a lot of reservations about (using the Feinerman waiver) with such great numbers.”

But Benaquisto said broadly she was glad to see a focus on using the money to ramp up direct interventions for students and efforts to reduce class sizes. 

Board member Andy Chestnut reiterated a hope to use the federal aid in ways that could solidify “once-in-a-generation” investments in the community, borrowing language from President Joe Biden. Chestnut asked whether it would be possible to use some of the money to expand health clinics to more Schenectady schools, establishing facilities that could use other revenue sources like health insurance to cover ongoing costs. Bochniak said that could be possible, highlighting the likely availability of additional grant dollars on top of the guaranteed federal aid. 

The board discussed the federal aid as effectively a separate source of funding from the district’s broader general fund. Depending on how state budget negotiations shake out, Bochniak said he expects the district to have between $1 million and $3 million to invest in new positions and programs. The additional state funding could be used to add a class period to the current middle school schedule, devote staff to attendance-focused positions, expand diversity and equity, among other items. 

“I think the focus on student intervention is huge and what we need,” Benaquisto said. 

It’s also not clear how much of a surplus the district will be able to carry over into the next academic year as this current budget closes out at the end of June. District officials laid off hundreds of teachers and support staff at the start of the year, bracing for potentially devastating state aid cuts that never came to fruition. The cuts meant many funded positions were left vacant for much of the year. Bochniak in response to questions Thursday said he planned to update the board on the surplus and how to use it sometime later this month.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

One Comment

RICHARD FLANDERS

How can this be considered a WINDFALL? It is all coming out of our pockets as taxpayers!
Our leaders need to stop thinking that federal money is a free asset, as it all comes from us. A suggested use would be to cut down the school taxes over the next several years, and pay down some of the debts carried by the school districts. This would get the money back to the taxpayers.

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