Programs that help Buffalo students catch up academically after the pandemic are headed for a “financial cliff” because federal aid is winding down.
At stake are more than 300 positions for everything from teaching and after-school programming to school security to mental health counseling.
Buffalo Public Schools will face cuts about a year from now, when the remainder of $290 million in Covid-19 relief funding through the American Rescue Plan ends.
“The financial cliff, it’s coming for all of us,” said James Barnes, the district’s chief financial officer. “The funding is going away. That amount of money cannot be absorbed into our general fund.”
Already, about three-fourths of the funds have been allocated, with some of the money helping to pay one-time expenses, such as teacher bonuses, retro-active pay from their last contract settlement, and new security equipment installed throughout the district.
A portion of the remaining money is paying salaries of 263 teachers, aides, psychologists, administrators and other staff brought on to improve student learning and mental health. Another 51 positions are for security. Other funds go toward instruction, summer school and after-school tutoring.
One-fifth of all American Rescue Plan funds awarded to the school district had to be spent on mitigating learning loss. By the end of this past summer, Buffalo Public Schools had spent $19.8 million toward that end.
School officials have been having trouble staffing the after-school program, but tout improvements students have made with the help of extra staff and programs. The district, for example, credits the programs for increasing reading assessment scores. This past summer’s programming saw modest increases in each elementary grade, except third, according to a report by the district.
In all, the district’s enrichment programs were completed by 1,632 elementary pupils and 555 seventh and eighth graders, and 4,177 high school students.
State standardized test results showed that a majority of elementary school pupils scored below their grade level before the pandemic. Test scores dropped yet lower as a result of disrupted learning. Hence, the push to help students catch up.
Given the extent of the Covid-related learning losses, many students will continue to need extra help when the relief funds run out in October 2024, school officials said.
As a result, the district, as well as parents, hope to retain some of the pandemic staff and programs even after funding ends.
Ed Speidel, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council of Buffalo, said the extra staff have changed the atmosphere of a school one of his children attends.
“The people who have helped solve our kids’ problems are all going to be gone,” Speidel said. “That destroys everything. It destroys what we’ve worked toward.”
“It’s not pretty,” he said. “We have a lot of soul-searching to do as a district.”
This year, 263 full time Buffalo school staff members will be funded through $30 million of remaining pandemic relief funds. Those positions include 81 teachers, 36 aides and assistants, 21 psychologists, 16 assistant principals, and nine social workers, according to a document supplied by the district.
Those staff members were hired with relief funds and made aware their positions may be temporary, Barnes said.
“In our view, they were hired with the expectation that when the grant ends, the positions end,” he said.
Elimination of the positions is “something, obviously, that we wouldn’t want to see happen,” said Rich Nigro, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation.
However, given annual turnover in the teaching ranks, it’s likely most of those losing their jobs would find another within the district.
“With attrition of people retiring, or leaving the profession, there’s probably going to be 81 jobs for those people,” said BTF Vice President Melinda MacPherson-Sullivan. “We can get to that bridge when we come to it.”
The programs presently in place are estimated to cost the district $94 million this year.
“It’ll be up to us to figure out potentially new sources of revenues,” Barnes said.
In the coming weeks, the district evaluate how to fund and keep as many staff and programs as possible, according to Barnes. The district’s general fund will absorb $6 million, allowing some initiatives to be kept, he said.
“Summer school [and] after-school programs, they will absolutely – that’s part of the $6 million we’ll move back to the general fund. That will continue to be funded,” Barnes said.
However, that $6 million falls far short of the $18.4 million budgeted for the current school year for those two programs.
Speidel complimented the district on its approach to learning loss during the summer months, saying “they did have one of the best summer school programs they’ve had in a long time.”
But the after-school program has a short history marred by busing and staffing issues, as previously reported by The Buffalo News.
“We haven’t really had a robust after-school program, so they haven’t done good there,” Speidel said.
After-school programming for both elementary and high school students is set to begin Oct. 23.
One option of future funding might be to ask the state for help, but Gov. Kathy Hochul’s budget director has told all state departments to keep 2025 funding requests at their current-year levels.
“Changing economic winds pose a challenge to New York’s financial position,” state Budget Director Blake Washington wrote in a Sept. 20 letter to commissioners. “As a consequence, our revenue forecasts have been revised downward, resulting in multi-year budget gaps.”