The annual Board of Education routine of setting budget priorities has an additional layer this year, as the first round of federal pandemic funding will end this September. In Kingston, trustees are grappling with figuring out whether they’d like some of the programs and initiatives to stick around, and if so, how they can afford to keep them.
The Kingston City School District received $6.4 million through the federal Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act enacted on December 20, 2020; and $15.1 million through the federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act enacted on March 11, 2021.
The CRRSA funding is available for the district to use through September 2023, while the ARP funding can be spent through September 2024, with at least 20 percent of the $15.1 million required to be spent on “learning loss” during the pandemic. Learning loss was able to be addressed with after-school or extended day activities, summer learning or enrichment, or extended school year. Some focus of learning loss spending was intended to consider underrepresented student subgroups, including but not limited to children from low-income families, children with disabilities, English learners, homeless children and foster children. The ARP funding also required school districts to formulate a plan to return to in-school instruction for the 2021-22 school year.
Much of Kingston’s focus was on learning loss and the social and emotional well-being of its students, with concerns of the impact of lockdown and distance learning, which began in mid-March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe.
During a meeting held on Thursday, January 26, Kingston City School District School Board trustees sought to strike a balance between what they hoped would continue as the federal stimulus packages expire with initiatives that were in place prior to COVID-19. For Robin Jacobowitz, that meant maintaining small class sizes and reviewing social and emotional initiatives to determine which were most effective, and which could continue working beyond the reach of CRRSA and ARP.
“One thing we talk about every year is class size and keeping class sizes low…and we’ve been able to do that certainly in elementary schools, and I would hope that would continue to be a priority,” Jacobowitz said. “And then of course we have always focused on social/emotional learning, making sure we have enough supports. And so in this budget process, I’d like to do an accounting of where our supports are, where our students are, and if we have the right spread, because things move and things change.”
Fellow Trustee Suzanne Jordan said she felt it was vital to not only consider initiatives and programs supported by federal pandemic funding, but also those that were in place previously.
“We have to evaluate what we’ve been doing, because I think that we might be hanging on to things that may not be as effective as some new things,” Jordan said. “I think as a district, that’s where I would like to see more effort made, to make sure we are promoting things that actually are effective.”
Board member Cathy Collins echoed Jordan’s sentiment, particularly as it pertains to positions like social workers and bilingual family workers hired with federal funding.
“(Those) are crucial to supporting our families and our students.” she said. “I want to make sure that those are retained, and I know that’s going to be tricky once this, the ARP funding goes away.”
Collins added that professionals with a focus on restorative practice, a focus for the district in the years prior to the pandemic, should also be retained.
“I think restorative practices, to be carried out in full, really need time,” Collins said. “And I’m just worried about our ability to follow through on our practice as a district without having people that are really devoted to that.”
Trustee Priscilla Lowe said she would like to see a greater focus on security, particularly at the district’s seven elementary schools.
“I know we cannot get SROs (school resource officers) in all the buildings, especially the elementary because we don’t have enough police officers that are certified,” Lowe said. “So I would like security guards in all the elementary schools, for safety really. Safety is the most important thing.”
Issues of security were raised the day after the School Board meeting when the KCSD posted a message to its official website about an anonymous threat written on the wall of M. Clifford Miller Middle School. School officials, M. Clifford Miller’s SRO and the Town of Ulster Police Department were called to the school and after an investigation deemed the building safe. Despite this, a school dance scheduled for that evening was postponed. The message also noted that there would be a heightened police presence at district schools while the investigation continues.