September 25, 2023


education gives you strength

With first quarter nearly done, school district budgets still up in the air

Categories: -The Daily Gazette, News, Schenectady County

As the Schenectady school board considered its latest round of layoffs last week, board member Nohelani Etienne, newly elected to the board in May, asked if there was any way to delay the cuts – even for just a week or two.

Just hours before the board’s Wednesday meeting, state budget officials indicated they planned to fully fund school aid payments due to districts later this month, and in an op-ed written for the Albany Times-Union, state budget director Robert Mujica said districts beginning to lay off staff were “acting prematurely.”

That same day, New York State United Teachers, along with Schenectady Federation of Teachers President Juliet Benaquisto, sued the state over aid reductions in districts across the state.

The school board had already approved well over 300 layoffs at previous meetings, but the conflicting messages around school funding pushed Etienne to try and hit the brakes on yet another round of cuts.

“I’m really struggling with some of what I’ve read, and I know there is no guarantee at this point, I just wonder if maybe we are doing it just a little too quick,” Etienne said at the meeting.

Other board members lamented the layoffs but also pointed to the funding uncertainty – and the downside risk of facing a $28.5 million budget shortfall. Interim Superintendent Aaron Bochniak said the district was trying to act responsibly without knowing how the state planned to reduce aid to districts throughout the year.

“I’m holding out hope the state perhaps has a more equitable way [of reducing state aid],” Bochniak said. “But there isn’t a plan yet, we don’t know what that plan would be, and what we really need at this time is stability.”

State budget officials have started to withhold about 20-percent of some payments, delaying others entirely, leaving Schenectady just over $800,000 short of funding the district had planned for at the start of the year. Forecasting the $28.5 million shortfall that would come with a 20-percent loss of state aid, Schenectady district leaders have imposed over 400 staff layoffs this month, including about 10 percent of the district’s teachers, social workers and counselors, and 50 percent of the district paraprofessional support staff.

With nearly 70 percent of its overall revenue coming from the state’s coffers, continued reductions would mean a precipitous loss of funding for the district. Bochniak has highlighted the challenge of covering lost funding if district officials waited until later in the year, after they had already spent millions of dollars on staff salaries. He has also cited a desire to avoid mid-year layoffs that would mean removing teachers from classrooms they started the year leading. If 20-percent funding reductions continued throughout the year, Schenectady would have enough money to fund just 85 percent of the budget voters approved in June, according to a Daily Gazette analysis of school district budgets.

With a greater share of their budgets coming from local property taxes, other Capital Region districts like Niskayuna and North Colonie could absorb a 20-percent loss of state aid with less risk to their budgets. Around 98 percent of North Colonie’s budget and 96 percent of Niskayuna’s budget would still be funded after a 20-percent reduction in state aid, according to the analysis.

But even those district may have to consider budget cuts if funding reductions continue, and if state officials weight district need in subsequent funding reductions, those districts may see a relatively larger funding cut than if funding reductions remain an across-the-board percentage for all districts.

Mujica’s op-ed suggested budget officials are exploring ways to balance further school aid reductions based on district needs. But district leaders are still waiting for the details of how any such plan will impact their local budgets and the cuts they may need to make this year to balance those budgets.

“The state cannot fully fund school for the entire school year without federal aid,” Mujica wrote. “There’s no question school district reliance on state aid varies widely, and we’re not going to let the federal government inaction impose the most harm on those with the highest need. If we get to the mid-year point with no federal aid, we’ll work with the legislature to ensure school district need is accounted for in any actions going forward.”

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