Shortchanged schools face a reckoning

Education. Districts in New York and New Jersey, like Warwick and Vernon, are being forced to cut teachers and make other hard choices because of reduced state aid. Pennsylvania’s decision to keep state aid flat will allow Delaware Valley to avoid lay-offs. But all school districts in the tristate area are headed into a future with few certainties.

22 Jun 2020 | 04:36

Louise Silver, who’s been teaching art to elementary school students in Warwick Valley Central School District for 31 years, was expecting to retire this year – but not this way.

“It’s a very sad way to be leaving,” she said. “I feel like I have no closure: saying goodbye to the kids, saying goodbye to all the people I’ve worked with for years. We have our annual art show, which is always really extraordinary. We didn’t get to honor the artists. I honestly think if I knew this year would be like this, and I knew next year would be, like, normal?” She laughed. “I don’t think I would’ve retired if I knew that this would be the end. I think I would have stayed.”

Compounding Silver’s blues is the prospect that no one will be taking her place. Four candidates to be her replacement were scheduled to begin interviewing the week Covid-19 shut down schools, along with the economy that helps fuel them. Now, who knows? “I think so much of it depends on the budget, so much of it depends on the state aid that they get, and whether kids are coming full time or if they’re going to stagger them,” said Silver.

Warwick Valley, N.Y.: What’s left to reduce?

Like other schools across New York, Warwick is saying goodbye to teachers, particularly veteran ones. The district cut 13 full-time teaching jobs to save $1.6 million, six through attrition. Four of those teachers will likely be called back, said Warwick Superintendent Dr. David Leach – a Spanish teacher, reading teacher, guidance counselor and elementary teacher – as the district realizes how much help it will need to restart school with increased distancing.

“We’ll use stimulus money to restore those four positions if it comes, otherwise we’ll use reserves,” said Leach. “We have our rainy day fund, and it’s a rainy day.”

This year’s $94.4 million budget – which voters passed nearly two-to-one by mail-in ballot, the district announced last week– is $649,000 lower than last year’s. It’s the first time Warwick’s budget has gone down year over year in more than two decades, the result of a gaping $2.9 million shortfall in state aid. Finances were already tight, said Leach, thanks partly to a decade-old tax cap that restricts how much schools can levy the community. The combination is “a perfect storm,” said Leach, particularly in poorer districts that rely more heavily on state aid. “You have student needs at an all-time high, whether mental health support or the learning gaps that the school closure may have created.”

Without a clear idea of how much government help to expect, Warwick made the decision to brace for the worst. Governor Andrew Cuomo has warned that he may slash school funding again, mid-year. The second-wave stimulus that would deliver $58 billion to the nation’s k-12 schools has passed the House but sits stalled in Congress. “Crystal ball? Maybe all this money will come from the federal government, and other districts will look like they have it figured out,” said Leach.

Then again, maybe it won’t. Without those federal dollars, the pandemic’s fallout could cost the nation’s schools a fifth of their workforce over the next three years, according to the National Education Association. New York stands to lose more than 99,000 education jobs, second only to California.

New York is an expensive place to be a school, said Leach, so there’s not a lot else to trim. About 15 percent of the budget covers unfunded mandates from the state. From fingerprinting employees to installing defibrillators to providing school security, those bills all fall to local taxpayers. “Whether it’s any of these Covid expenses that are going to be coming down the pike, any guidelines we get from the state, likely additional funding will not come for them,” said Leach. The average district, which is slightly larger than Warwick, will have to lay out an additional $1.8 million to meet federal guidelines like no-touch thermometers and beefing up custodial departments, according to the School Superintendents Association.

“I need to physically distance these children, I need to be able to thoroughly clean,” said Leach. “Parents need children in school so they can go back to work, but it likely won’t be business as usual, at least at the start of the year.”

Even running the budget vote in the age of social distancing was a wallop. “Big money,” said Leach. “You’re mailing out 17,000 ballots, you’re printing 17,000 ballots. Superintendents around the state are complaining about the cost.”

During the Great Recession, Warwick got through the lean times by leveraging its declining enrollment as “a balancing tool,” said Leach. “So in those years, you could have 15 to 20 teachers retire and not replace them,” he said. But Warwick’s school population has been creeping up recently – and anecdotally, Leach said, more families than usual have been reaching out – so a loss of teachers will be felt.

Still, there’s no way around it. “What’s left to reduce, you know?” asked Leach.

In Silver’s case, her departure will probably mean the district’s art department goes from eight to seven teachers, which would translate to larger art class sizes in the middle school and a loss of three electives in the high school. Though small, “it’s a very strong art department, very talented, really wonderful staff,” she said. “Especially at the high school level where there are a lot of kids who are planning on majoring in this, to have that limited, would really be a shame.”

Art is no outlier. It’s the same story with physical education, the media program, social studies, and class sizes across the board. “But we’re going to persevere, and we’re going to be just fine,” said Leach. “We have a pretty rich and robust program in the district. The reductions we’ve made will have less of an impact than you’ll find at other schools around the area.”

Vernon, N.J.: From nice to have, to have to have

Even before Covid, the Vernon Township School District was tightening its belt. The district is three years into a state aid restructuring that is slashing $10 million from the district budget over six years. They’ve been living with “a retire, not replace policy” that sheds as many as 20 jobs a year, said Vernon Superintendent Karen D’Avino. With $1.3 million less to work with next year, they’re cutting to the bone.

“When someone retires, we don’t replace them unless we have to,” she said. For the upcoming year, the district is also letting go about 15 non-tenured teachers “that we really can’t afford to keep,” she said. Between this year and next, the district will have lost about 50 employees – teachers, administrators, maintenance staff, and custodians.

“What we’re seeing in Vernon is a move from what was nice to have to what you have to have, over the next couple years,” said D’Avino. If and when students return in the fall, the kindergartners and first-graders who would have gone to Walnut Ridge Elementary School will move to a sister school, saving the district $400,00. Also gone: AP art history; high school art sections, sixth grade STEM classes, a music production program, middle school robotics, a middle school personal fitness elective, high school Italian, high school food sections, and second- and third-grade Spanish. They are sunsetting the French program. The librarians are now teaching classes.

New this year: trauma coordinators, paid for out of the $158,000 the district got from the first round of federal stimulus grants. They will provide emotional support for stressed kids and track down students who stop showing up, a particular problem with remote learning. “When you can’t get a child or a parent to return a call, you start to worry,” said D’Avino.

Rather than cutting programs altogether, they’re trying instead to decrease programs, stretching teachers and dollars further. For instance, the high school robotics team does really well and is self-funded other than a stipend for advisers. So while the feeder program – the middle school robotics class – is kaput, the high schoolers will still get to build their robots and send them into battle, provided they can raise the money.

Because of Covid, the district has no choice but to invest in more Chromebooks and batteries (right on the heels of cutting its technology program by $100,000). They don’t know yet whether they will also need to hire bus monitors to make sure kids are social distancing, or people to take temperatures on the way in.

The district is doing what it can to adjust to its changing dimensions: talking about the maximum class size it’s comfortable with, and the right square footage per student. “Our buildings are built for more children, which is good considering Covid,” said D’Avino. District enrollment has fallen from about 5,000 to about 3,000 in the last eight years, but with house sales in the area skyrocketing in the wake of the pandemic, those buildings may start filling up again.

What most concerns D’Avino is not the devil she knows, but the unknown. “I’m really worried about Covid and the impact it’s going to have on state aid down the road, because state aid is based on income tax and sales tax, right? Think about what’s happened over the last three months.”

As her district starts working on a multi-year budget, once upon a time they would have been looking three to five years out. “Right now, to do a one- or a two-year plan is probably the best we can do because we really don’t have any answers as to what the state aid figures are going to look like next year.”

Last year’s staff of 300 certificated employees – teachers, administrators and counselors – felt about right to D’Avino, who has been a superintendent for 14 years. “We’re going into September at about 280. I’m like, how am I going in at 280 for next year? And the following year, it could be less,” she said.

“Unfortunately, there will be an impact on children and programs,” said D’Avino. “That’s what we’re trying desperately to avoid.”

Delaware Valley, Pa.: Stocking up for the unknown

Schools have a year of breathing room in Pennsylvania, where the governor signed a budget that keeps state aid for education flat from last year. “Education must remain a priority even during a pandemic,” said Governor Tom Wolf. Delaware Valley School District’s budget is actually a smidgen higher than last year’s, without having raised taxes, thanks to $475,000 from CARES, the first-round federal stimulus.

But “that’s a one-shot deal,” said Delaware Valley Superintendent John Bell. Anything could happen after 2021, so “the trick is, don’t use that for your operating budget.” Instead, the district is using the injection of nearly half a million dollars to stock up. “We’re using it for cleaning supplies, Plexiglas, all those things we never thought we’d have to buy.” They will have a fleet of nine disinfecting fogger machines, up from the one they used to break out when a school had a flu outbreak in January. “Now we have one for every building, one for buses,” said Bell. “We’re going to be doing it daily.”

They’re getting a year ahead on buying new textbooks, an $88,000 ticket item, and taking the opportunity to replace their damaged Chromebooks. (As the district collects the 1,100 Chromebooks that were lent out to students for remote learning this spring, they expect to find more than a few have been dropped or otherwise beat up.) That way, the following year, when government aid is a big question mark, the district won’t have to spend on textbooks or laptops.

This is an even stranger time than the Great Recession, said Bell, who at the time was an assistant superintendent in Port Jervis, N.Y. “I was telling one of the guys on our school board who’s a CPA, even during the recession during ‘08, I never had a time when I felt like I was living in three different budgets at once,” he said.

Bell’s job now is to continue finding ways to shave money off the current year’s budget, balance the next budget with the help of federal funds, and try to figure out how to avoid raising taxes the year after that.

This year, as in eight of the last 13 years, Delaware Valley did not raise the school tax levy. That streak has been largely thanks to the wiggle room provided by falling enrollment. The district has seen unusually dramatic swings: the student population exploded in the ‘80s to more than triple its size as the rural region was developed, then hit its peak in 2007. Since then the district has shed more than 1,350 students, about a quarter of its peak population. So as Baby Boomer teachers retired, they simply weren’t replaced.

“We’ve been trimming now for a decade, trimming around the edges,” said Bell. “That’s been our secret sauce to balancing the budget.” This year, the district didn’t replace two retiring elementary school teachers and reduced a gym teacher from full-time to part-time.

That secret sauce has probably run out. In the wake of the virus and the unrest in cities, Bell is bracing for the pendulum to swing back the other way as Pike County absorbs its share of the urban migration. He’s hearing from realtors that they have run out of houses to sell, “so that’s kind of like the leading indicator,” he said. To get a sense of what’s coming, he is opening up new student registration earlier than usual this year. “I figure the sooner we find out, the better.”

Whatever the future looks like, there is one thing Bell hopes never to have to do. “No one’s ever been laid off – ever – in the history of school district,” he said, which has existed since 1956. “And I’m not going to be the one to do it. Knock on wood.”

Is a school bailout coming?
The American Federation of Teachers launched a million-dollar campaign this month to pressure Congress to pass the HEROES Act, which includes $58 billion for the nation’s k-12 schools. “If we fail to act, essential services will be gutted and hundreds of thousands more educators, healthcare workers and public employees will be laid off,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten on June 12. Already, more than twice as many teachers have been lost as during the Great Recession, and in most states, schools had not bounced back to prerecession staffing levels a decade later. Nationwide, state budget shortfalls over the next three years will dwarf those of 2009-13, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, with the pain concentrated in 2021.
“I need to physically distance these children, I need to be able to thoroughly clean. Parents need children in school so they can go back to work, but it likely won’t be business as usual, at least at the start of the year.” --Dr. David Leach, Warwick, N.Y., superintendent