Schenectady City School Districts leaders this week expressed confidence that staff layoffs won’t be necessary as district officials work through a difficult budget season.
While the district still faces a projected budget shortfall of around $4.6 million, district officials have outlined a “toolkit” of options to bridge the budget gap without cutting staff positions. Those other options include dipping into the district’s deep budget reserves, make cuts that don’t affect staff or student programs directly, raise the local tax levy, save some money from this year’s budget for next year’s, and use the district’s state technology funds under a new expedited process.
At Wednesday night’s school board meeting, which focused on a budget update, Acting Superintendent Aaron Bochniak said that “first and foremost, we want all positions and programs to stay in place,” while suggesting some “belt tightening” would be necessary and that some budget items that have been continued year after year would need to be cut. During an interview Thursday, Bochniak reiterated that “absolutely” the district would not need to lay off staff to cover the budget shortfall.
“I don’t want there to be any misunderstanding about it at all, we are preserving staff and program,” Bochniak said Thursday.
The officials’ confidence that they can develop a budget that spares the district’s roughly 2,000 staff positions, though, doesn’t mean the budget isn’t going to be challenging. State lawmakers on Wednesday finalized a budget deal that freezes foundation aid, the state’s core school funding formula and a major source of funding for Schenectady schools.
And as the district has invested millions into new staff and programs over recent years, educators in the district have noted the litany of other investments they feel are needed to support the district’s students.
“This is going to challenge us and test our thinking about the ways we spend our money, and I think we are well positioned for it,” Kimberly Lewis, the district’s business official, said during Wednesday’s budget presentation. “It’s a serious situation and we can’t ignore it, but I don’t want people to be in panic mode, because we don’t need to be.”
The district has just over $24 million allocated to various reserves for specific types of expenses — such as employee benefits, insurance, unemployment, workers compensation and repair funds — that can be used for certain costs. But the district has another $6.3 million in so-called “unreserved, unrestricted fund balance,” as of last June 30, which could be appropriated to cover costs in next year’s budget. Lewis said she expected the unrestricted fund balance would grow more by the end of the year.
School board members and district officials on Wednesday cautioned that the budget impacts of the pandemic could linger for years, so the board would want to be careful about its use of its reserves. Using reserves also functions as a one-time shot of funding that could lead to future budget holes. If the district allocated $2 million of the fund balance to next year’s budget, for example, that $2 million would serve to close next year’s budget gap, but if the gap was caused by a recurring cost, such as salaries, the district would face the same $2 million gap the following year.
Some board members also sounded wary of asking Schenectady property owners to help close the gap with an increased tax levy, the total amount the district collects in local taxes, noting the economic hardships many families now face. The board over the last five years has kept the tax levy flat or lowered it slightly, a longterm goal of the board’s that members appeared reluctant to drop.
“My opinion would be to leave the tax levy at zero, not an increase,” board member Dharam Hitlall said Wednesday night. “Most people are out of jobs, they don’t know if they are going to be going back to these jobs or will stay laid off.”
The district is also seeking to take advantage of an expedited review process to access part of its over $9 million in Smart Schools funding, statewide money allocated to districts to use in expanding technology. Bochniak said he filed a request with the state Education Department on Thursday to purchase 5,000 new Chrome-book laptops that could help support the district’s remote teaching. He said he didn’t know yet how quick the expedited process would be.