NYC school budgets, programs in jeopardy as federal pandemic aid expires

Local school budgets in NYC and an array of beloved programs are in jeopardy as the end of federal support for pandemic recovery nears, 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 by dollars that expire by 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 forward a plan in how it will sustain these programs,” said Councilwoman Rita Joseph (D-Brooklyn), who chairs the education committee.

Schools Chancellor David Banks warned that the problem will be widespread, as the school system’s operating budget is slated to dwindle by hundreds of millions of dollars, largely due to a reduction in COVID pandemic aid.

“That’s going to be an issue for us on a number of fronts: As stimulus dollars wind down, how do we ensure with a limited dollars, that all these programs that we love and support are going to remain?” said Banks. “I can’t tell you definitively right now that all these things are going to be funded.”

With competing demands on fewer dollars, the chancellor said that literacy will be the “foremost priority” of the administration’s work. The public schools have started some of that work with literacy screeners and specialized programs to overhaul their approach to reading, especially in the younger grades.

Only 49% of city public school kids are reading on grade level, as determined by standardized tests, officials testified. And close to two-thirds of Black and brown students did not meet that standard.

“I’m also trying to find dollars to ensure that kids can read by third grade,” said Banks. “Certain other programs that people are really tied to, we don’t have the funding to do all of it. If I did, I would support and fund every one of these programs. But there are some times, you have to establish what are the priorities.”

One part of the budget the chancellor was sure of, though, was schools that lost students over the course of the pandemic will not receive the same allocations as when they had more kids enrolled — “It will not be 100%. I cannot be more clear about that,” he said.

“The stimulus dollars will not last forever,” said Banks, “so we’re going to do everything we can to keep the schools as whole as possible, while they continue to fight the good fight of getting kids to come back to the school.”

The cuts last year sparked a summer of protests and even a lawsuit to reverse the impact, though the reductions were ultimately upheld on appeal. Progressive local lawmakers, who approved the reductions, later apologized for their votes to pass a city budget that reduced education funding.

After the controversy, Mayor Adams reversed course on another $80 million planned cut to the allocations sent to principals next school year, meant to wean schools off the federal support. The funding will help cover some of the shortfalls schools otherwise would face if held to their current enrollment.

Officials also expect the declines in per-pupil funding to be less drastic ahead of next fall, when the budget is divvied up across schools. That’s thanks in part to an estimated 14,000 migrant students who have enrolled in local schools since the academic year began.

But some councilmembers pushed back against anything less than the budgets that schools had grown used to during the flood of cash.

“Understanding there was a stimulus infusion, the fact of the matter is there’s reliance built up by schools over time that have invested in programs,” said said Councilman Shekar Krishnan (D-Queens). “We know our schools need more funding anyway, so to not have a hold harmless provision is deeply problematic.”