District weighs cost-cutting measures in wake of looming $10 million state aid shortfall

amsterdam logoFaced with a potential 20 percent cut in state aid to education in 2020-21 and no federal stimulus help in sight, the Greater Amsterdam School District is continuing to review further cost-cutting measures to persevere through the school year.

Superintendent Richard Ruberti will present new alternatives for revenue savings to the Board of Education Wednesday night as the district faces a possible overall loss of some $10 million in state due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The board will meet at 6 p.m. and the remote meeting will be shown on the district’s YouTube channel.

Governor Cuomo has threatened to cut money to schools, local governments and hospitals by as much as 20 percent this year if Congress does not agree on a relief package that includes direct aid to state and local governments hard hit by the pandemic. New York state faces a $14 billion budget deficit of its own.

The 2020-21 GASD budget is approximately $76 million, of which state aid funds 67 percent. A loss of 20 percent of that aid equates to a roughly $10 million shortfall for the school district.

“That’s an impossible gap to fill,” said Ruberti, “but Greater Amsterdam and all school districts are doing the best it can to look for ways to survive these unprecedented times.”

In response to the aid cuts, other city school districts like Albany and Schenectady announced plans recently to move to an all remote learning model for middle and high school students to save on costs. Elementary and Special Education students would report to school in-person in those school districts on a hybrid learning model.

Ruberti said that a remote only model for some or all GASD students may be an option for the school board to consider as GASD, like its neighbors in the Capital Region, looks to save on auxiliary costs. If staff reductions are needed, the district would take a “layered” approach to making them. In-person instruction for students whose parents chose that for their children in the Purple and Gold groups is scheduled to start for most GASD students on Sept. 21.

“Although we want our students in school where they learn best, we are being forced to explore all options at this time,” Ruberti said. “No one wants this but we have to work through it and make certain we provide a quality education for our students under the severe financial constraints we face.”

The GASD Board of Education held a special meeting Aug. 31 to begin discussing its financial challenges. At that meeting, the board voted to postpone all Pre-K education until at least Dec. 1. The district is still waiting on more than $1.3 million in state reimbursement for the costs of running its pre-kindergarten program last school year and has no guarantee of funding for the current year’s program. Pre-K education is not mandated by the state. In-person Kindergarten instruction is also being postponed until Oct. 5.

On top of the withholding of Pre-K funding, GASD has spent over $1 million on COVID-19 related expenses since the start of the 2020-21 fiscal year on July 1, most to prepare for the reopening of schools, and that number could more than double as the school year moves forward. These expenses include purchasing 2,200 new Chromebooks for remote learning, a first round of PPE equipment and cleaning supplies, nursing services, thermos-temperature scanners, air filtration systems, legal, architectural and other consulting fees, and more.

In preparation for the anticipated COVID-19 costs and threat of lost state revenues, the district last May prepared a 2020-21 budget that reduced overall spending by nearly $1 million or 1.66 percent. The budget also eliminated the equivalent of 28.5 staff positions, including eight layoffs, equipment purchases, student field trips and various other programs and services.

The district has about a $10 million fund balance legally permitted for emergency costs. The district may apply some of this fund balance to help get through the monetary shortfalls caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and loss of state aid, Ruberti said, but it needs to maintain the majority of its savings to remain financially stable going forward. Projections on state funding for education in future years are not encouraging at this time.