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Schools on front lines with COVID, finances

OBSERVER Photo The entrance to Silver Creek High School includes dots on the sidewalk signifying 6 feet of space.

SILVER CREEK — Surrounded by plastic dividers in a conference room while being 6 feet apart and wearing a facial covering, Superintendent Todd Crandall spoke with pride in the work done by his staff as students were entering the high school building on Monday. Coming through the front door in single file — keeping a distance — and having their temperature checked is part of the daily drill nowadays for all students who are being educated in buildings throughout the region.

“We need children in the building,” Crandall said. “They can’t learn as well from home.”

Crandall and Chuck Leichner, Cassadaga Valley Central Schools superintendent who also was in attendance this day, have witnessed the ups and downs that have come during the COVID-19 pandemic. Both their districts have been touched by the virus since reopening in September, especially Cassadaga Valley in recent days, but everyone involved is making the best of a stressful situation.

Students, staff and teachers also are following safety guidelines, understanding what is at stake.

Coming to class in masks while spatial distancing remains a much better and more personal option than going remote through Google classroom or whatever platform districts are using.

One year ago today, no one could have forecast such a restrictive environment. But all things considered, schools are one of the safer places to be — even if recent positive cases continue throughout the county–as educational leaders are demanding and enforcing a controlled environment.

Schools also are one of the most accountable. New York state, since the fall began, has kept parents and residents informed through the COVID School Report Card. Though a headache for administrators, it is one of the most important tools when dealing with our children and allowing for decisions from home.

But that has not been the case for all districts.

In two of the largest north county schools, a return to classrooms has begun to happen — albeit at a very slow pace. This week, Dunkirk middle and high schoolers who chose to do so, came back to the facilities for the first time since March. Fredonia secondary students are supposed to come back later this month. It is a decision that has not sat well with many parents who were expecting classroom-learning to be happening in September.

Recent school board meetings there have been filled with complaints and criticisms regarding the delays. It is hard to dispute what is being said by those speaking up and in attendance at the meetings. Fredonia appears to have fallen behind when compared to other districts in the region.

All this being said, health and safety is the most important issue at this time. But another problem is right around the corner: how will districts be able to navigate through the full year if a 20% cut in aid does come from the state?

Both Crandall and Leichner, members of the Far West Council of School Superintendents, are already seeing the impending storm clouds. While both are confident about handling the financial shortfall in their districts this year, it is the next three to four years that is a true worry for all educational institutions.

As an example, Crandall said a 20% cut from Albany equates to about $3.2 million in funding for his Silver Creek district. Leichner said Cassadaga Valley’s pain would be about the same around $3.4 million. Both districts, it must be noted, presented budget plans last spring that included staff reductions while also using some cash in reserve funds to bridge the gap.

Jamestown, the county’s largest district, could face a $14 million loss under these circumstances. Smaller districts, many of which receive about 70% of their revenue from the state, decided against slashing spending during a global pandemic. That could lead to serious financial implications sometime after January.

“(Some) are considering … they may have to borrow money because there will be a cash flow shortage,” Crandall said.

Education aid from Albany is a tremendous economic engine for this county. According to the final numbers, schools were forecast to receive $277 million for operations — that is $15 million more than Chautauqua County’s 2021 budget. A 20% reduction in that figure alone is about $55 million.

That is a real, significant amount of money that will be missing from all of our communities. Both Crandall and Leichner are hopeful residents do reach out to local representatives to make the case for equitable reductions.

“When a school district relies on over 50% of state aid to operate, a 20% reduction is far more impactful than on a district who only relies on 3% of state aid to operate,” Crandall, president of the superintendents’ council, said earlier this week. “The program reductions to poorer schools will be devastating and further the gap of inequities in programming.”

Chautauqua County, according to recent estimates, has one of the highest poverty rates at 18.3% in the state. This is apparent in the largest in our of communities as Jamestown’s rate is 31.4%, Dunkirk is 22.7% and Fredonia is at 24.1%.

Those numbers are alarming, but for school districts across the county — almost all of which offer free lunches to all their students –this has been a reality for far too long. “The state must take care of all its students,” Crandall said, “not just the ones living in wealthier districts.”

John D’Agostino is regional editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 253.

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