Local school budgets in New York City and a variety of beloved programs are in jeopardy as federal support for pandemic recovery nears the end, officials warned at a hearing on the education budget Wednesday.
Pre-kindergarten for 3-year-olds, community schools that partner with local organizations to offer various services, and mental health support are all bolstered with dollars that expire at the end of next year. And for the second year in a row, a temporary initiative that funded schools losing enrollment at their pre-pandemic levels is not part of the preliminary budget.
“The DOE (Department of Education) has not put out a plan for how it will sustain these programs,” said Councilwoman Rita Joseph (D-Brooklyn), who chairs the education committee.
Schools Chancellor David Banks has warned that the problem will become more widespread as the school system’s operating budget is set to shrink by hundreds of millions of dollars, largely due to a reduction in aid from the COVID pandemic.
“That’s going to be a problem for us on multiple fronts: As stimulus dollars dry up, how do we make sure with limited money that all of these programs that we love and support will stick around?” Foreign Minister David Banks said. “I can’t tell you definitively right now that all these things will be funded.”
With competing demands for fewer dollars, the chancellor said literacy will be the “first priority” of the work of the administration. Public schools have begun some of that work with literacy evaluators and specialized programs to review their approach to reading, especially in the younger grades.
Only 49% of the city’s public school children are reading at grade level, as determined by standardized tests, officials testified. And about two-thirds of black and brown students didn’t meet that standard.
“I’m also trying to find dollars to make sure kids can read in third grade,” Banks said. “Certain other programs that people are really attached to, we don’t have the funding to do it all. If I did, I would support and fund each of these programs. But there are times when you have to establish what the priorities are.”
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However, one part of the budget that the chancellor was sure of was that schools that lost students in the course of the pandemic will not receive the same allocations as when they had more children enrolled: “It will not be 100%. I can’t be more clear about it,” he said.
“The stimulus dollars won’t last forever,” Banks said, “so we’ll do everything we can to keep schools as full as possible, while continuing to fight the good fight of getting kids back to school. .”
Last year’s cuts sparked a summer of protests and even a lawsuit to reverse the impact, though the cuts were ultimately upheld on appeal. Progressive local lawmakers, who approved the cuts, later apologized for their votes to pass a city budget that reduced education funding.
Following the controversy, Mayor Adams reversed course on another planned $80 million cut to appropriations sent to principals next school year, aimed at stripping schools of federal support. The funds will help fill some of the gaps that schools would face if they maintained their current enrollment.
Officials also hope that the decreases in per-pupil funding will be less drastic before next fall, when the budget is divvied up among schools. That’s thanks in part to an estimated 14,000 immigrant students who have enrolled in local schools since the academic year began.
But some councilors rejected anything less than the budgets schools had grown accustomed to during the cash rush.
“Understanding that there was an infusion of stimulus, the fact is that schools have built trust over the time they have invested in programs,” said Councilor Shekar Krishnan (D-Queens). “We know our schools need more funding anyway, so not having a disclaimer provision is deeply problematic.”