School officials warn of 'complete devastation' without federal bailout
Reopening its schools this year cost Yonkers about $10 million.
In the Tarrytowns, re-entry has racked up a $600,000 bill. In Ossining, the cost has been roughly $400,000. In White Plains, it’s $2 million. All of those dollars were spent on extras — masks, plastic dividers, cleaning supplies — stacked on top of the usual costs of running schools.
School districts have had to spend all that cash with the threat of a 20% cut in state funding hanging overhead, a step Gov. Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly said he’ll be forced to take if the federal government does not provide states with a huge bailout.
Seven superintendents joined Westchester County Executive George Latimer and state Sen. Peter Harckham, D-Peekskill, in Ossining on Wednesday to urge Congress to pass the Heroes Act, the $3 trillion federal stimulus package passed by the House of Representatives in May.
Their call to the federal government came on the same day that almost 200 public and private groups penned a letter to Senate leaders imploring them not to leave Washington without passing a relief bill.
The newly formed COVID Relief Now Coalition warned that the ramifications of waiting could hurt the economy for decades. Westchester school leaders warned that New York’s children would suffer for years to come.
“COVID-19 has hit us hard,” said Pleasantville Superintendent Mary Fox-Alter. “We are asking for a little help from our friends in Washington ... friends who we have helped out year after year, decade after decade, to the tune of billions of dollars.”
Superintendents say that if the Senate doesn’t pass the bill and send federal money to New York, the consequences for school districts will be dire.
“In Yonkers, 20% is $69 million, said Yonkers Superintendent Edwin Quezada. “That’s what it means for us ... complete devastation.”
Yonkers has already cut nine preschool classrooms and begun to lay off staff, Quezada said.
Mount Vernon schools announced Wednesday they will not be able to reopen for in-person instruction until at least November, partially citing state funding cuts that already affected staffing.
White Plains Superintendent Joseph Ricca said that a 20% cut for his district would be $6 million.
“That's not the kind of money that you can turn the couch cushions over and find,” he said. “It would be a cut that would be felt forever, and that's why we're advocating so hard to make sure that it doesn't materialize.”
In more diverse, high-need districts, asking for more funding isn’t just about preventing cuts to arts or athletic programs that tend to become vulnerable when times are tight, said Peekskill Superintendent David Mauricio. It’s about protecting basic educational programming.
“Unfortunately, cuts [at] the state level, because of not receiving funding at the federal level during this time of great need, will disproportionately impact certain districts. I need you to know that a 20% cut in Peekskill will be in the millions,” he said.
The needs of schools are especially pressing in the Hudson Valley because one of the region’s main draws has long been the quality of its public schools, Latimer said.
“[Education] is the single most in-demand public service that's provided by any level of government,” Latimer said.
“So we ask the leadership of the U.S. Senate ... are you investing in the future of America?" he said. "Are you going to play politics with the lives of kids? Are you going to look at a school superintendent that's got a million headaches in his or her head right now ... and say, ‘No, we're going to deny you the revenue you need.'"
With New York state’s deficit sitting at $14.6 billion, Washington is the only possible source of the funds schools need, Harckham said.
“At a time when the state does not have the money to fund [schools] at a normal level ... we're asking them to do a Herculean effort,” Harckham said. “These people ... are putting their lives at risk to educate our children. We cannot ask them to do that and not provide the resources that are necessary.”
The superintendents, along with Beth Sniffen, director of the Westchester East Putnam Region PTA, urged parents to call their representatives to advocate for federal help.
“Think about the fact that we already started excising teachers, and other professionals in our schools," Quezada said. "Think about the fact that extended learning programs are now not in place in our schools."
“This is all the result of the inaction of Washington," he said. "Ladies and gentlemen, if we want to save public education, let us all call Washington and say that children are suffering because of them.”