Local school districts receive much-needed aid from the $1.9 trillion federal pandemic aid package

Local school districts earlier this month received a much-needed boost from the federal $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan approved by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden. News of the aid comes at a time when many districts are still in the process of putting their budgets together for the 2021-22 school year. 

The largest school district in Ulster County, the Kingston City School District, will receive roughly $14.3 million in federal aid. The Onteora Central School District ($4.8 million), the Saugerties Central School District ($3.4 million) and New Paltz Central School District ($1.7 million) will also benefit from the funding. 

In a March 17 press release announcing the district-by-district breakdown, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said the Covid-19 relief plan will help schools reopen safely. 

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“Everyone wants schools to reopen completely and for our children to be able to return to the classroom, but it needs to be done in a way that is safe for students, families, educators and learning institutions,” Schumer said. “Covid brought unprecedented challenges that have cost a year of learning and development for students — challenges disproportionately felt by students of color, students from low-income families, students with disabilities and more. 

As Majority Leader, I was proud to make funding for our schools a priority, and the American Rescue Plan will deliver this much-needed aid to get Upstate students back in school. Help is on the way for Upstate New York’s schools put behind the curve by the pandemic.”

The funding will require school districts to formulate a plan to return to in-school instruction for the 2021-22 school year, and must spend at least 20 percent of the funding on addressing learning loss during a pandemic that upended education over a year ago. According to Schumer, school districts will have leeway in how they use the aid, from filling in budget gaps to assisting students with disabilities, students experiencing homelessness, providing summer enrichment and after-school programs and more. 

While the press release gave the impression that much of the funding will be able to be spent at each school district’s discretion, Saugerties School District Superintendent Kirk Reinhardt said the district was waiting until all the paperwork is in before deciding where the money will go and whether it will arrive on time. 

“It’s great knowing that there’s a flow of money,” Reinhardt said. “The big concern is, you know, we’re hoping for an on-time budget of all of April 1, and we’re still waiting for further clarification on the way the money is going to be spent,” Reinhardt said. “We’ll feel a lot better once we know what it’s allocated for and how that aligns with our budget that we’ve already been working on. And then obviously the other big thing is what kind of issue could this create for us a year from now when we’re not going to get this money (again)”

Superintendent Victoria McLaren said the Onteora School District was awaiting similar clarification on the federal aid. 

“At this point, while we have received the projection of the amount of federal stimulus that is allocated for Onteora, we have not received any details regarding what restrictions will be placed on these funds, or the process and timeline for districts to receive them,” McLaren said. “There are many programs that can be supported or enhanced within the district, we cannot make plans without knowing what guidelines will accompany this funding. We look forward to better understanding the intent of the funding. We do still believe there is a chance that our state aid will be increased when the NYS budget is approved. Typically, the governor’s projection is the lowest amount that districts will receive and various aid categories are increased with the state budget.”

In mid-January, Governor Andrew Cuomo said that if Congress doesn’t send New York State $15 billion in unrestricted emergency Covid-19 aid, taxes will likely go up and spending — including aid to public school districts — is likely to drop. Local school officials are concerned about what that means for their districts as the governor looks to pass his $103 billion spending plan. 

New York schools overall will receive roughly $9 billion in federal aid, with a further $12 billion earmarked for state and local governments. How this will impact the state budget remains to be seen. 

McLaren said the Onteora district is moving forward on its budget process.

“Our budget process has been fairly smooth this year,” she said. “We are grateful for the state aid that has been included in the governor’s budget, and we have created a budget based on our aid projections that will maintain the programs were in place before the pandemic as well as enhancing the mental health supports for our students and enhancing our social studies curriculum at the K-6 level. We are also projecting to do some smaller capital work with funds that are in the district currently. We will be asking the voters to support the creation of another capital reserve in conjunction with our budget vote this year as well. This is a tool that we use for long term planning and maintenance of our facilities.”

Reinhardt said the Saugerties district is also moving forward, with one eye on the 2021-22 school year and the other fixed further in the future, noting that the district is wary of spending the stimulus aid on anything they can only benefit from for a single academic year. 

“School is run better with consistency,” Reinhardt said. “You don’t always want to plan just for next year. You want to plan for three years, five years. So you want to, you don’t want to put something in place and then realize you can’t have it again.”

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