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Schools eye American Rescue Plan to change education

Schools eye American Rescue Plan to change education

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Teacher Amy Blair reads to some students at a BOCES summer school program at Parkdale Elementary School in East Aurora on July 10, 2020.

Niagara Falls City School District plans to hire 51 teachers, social workers and other staff.

Sloan schools will offer before and after school remediation.

Williamsville Central will increase summer school enrollment by nearly 86%.

School districts that for years have been trying to figure out what and where to make cuts find themselves in the unusual position of figuring out how to spend, thanks to federal pandemic relief funding. For some, the funds are a needed aid to help students who lost ground during the past 15 months. Others will have the opportunity to drastically change the course of education.

More than $485 million in federal funds will drop into school districts in Erie and Niagara counties in the next three years to address the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, with more money going to higher need districts.

At least 20% of the $315 million in American Rescue Plan money must be used to deal with learning loss by students, many who spent more time trying to learn at home than in school buildings since March 2020. Schools also were allotted $170 million from a different federal stimulus pot, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act.

"It’s a large sum of money for many districts," said Robert N. Lowry Jr., deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. "But it will go away eventually."

The money must be spent by September 2024.

The funding could be transformative for some high needs districts, such as Buffalo, which is receiving $289 million. Niagara Falls will be getting $43 million. Most local districts will receive between $2.3 million and $5 million. But that can still make a difference. Sloan will receive $4.6 million, which is 13% of its overall budget.

Niagara Falls will be addressing continuity of instruction and smooth return to learning, technology and capital improvements with its stimulus funding, Superintendent Mark Laurrie said. The district plans to hire 51 additional staff members, among them, eight new reading teachers to provide services to the lowest performing first graders, 12 teachers and teaching assistants for math intervention, two instructional strategy coaches, three work-based learning coordinators and five social workers.

The district is taking advantage of the stimulus to create new programs. The work-based learning coordinators will bridge the gap between school and work, and the district is adding late credit recovery/"flex" teachers for the high school to help students who lack the credits to graduate.

"Some students have not been successful in the traditional 8 to 3 day. We’ll work with kids from noon to 5:30," Laurrie said.

Laurrie said he does not anticipate having to lay off any of the new hires when the federal funding ends in several years. That's because Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo pledged to fully fund foundation aid according to the existing formula for school districts. The district also is looking to gain some additional money from the lawsuit it and seven other small cities brought against the state for increased state aid.

And if those funds dry up, a number of teachers will be retiring in the coming years.

As of June 2020, 34% of the 261,000 teachers in New York were 50 or older, which puts them in the retirement pipeline, according to New York State United Teachers. Ten percent of teachers were under 30.

"We have figured out and have charted out the number of retirements that could come in that time. If we don't get additional funds, we won't have to put those individuals on the street," Laurrie said. "It's a great time to be an education major."

Buffalo is still getting input and designing its plan, but look for a hiring boom there, too.

“The district will be making sound strategic investments across a number of high leverage high impact areas of our work from prenatal development to college and career readiness," Superintendent Kriner Cash said. "We will need to build greater organizational capacity to accomplish this at the level that our children deserve and need. So, certainly there will be myriad professional hires required.”

Buffalo Public Schools held four meetings for stakeholders to give their opinions on how to spend $200 million the district will receive in American Rescue Plan funding and $89 million in CRRSA money. Cash is to outline the results at Thursday's School Board meeting.

Many districts are creating new summer school programs or increasing enrollment in existing summer school. Niagara Falls has about 350 middle school students signed up for a new program that starts Monday. Elementary summer programs start July 12.

Sloan will offer before and after school remediation programs the next three school years, and summer school with transportation in 2022 and 2023.

"Due to the large cost related to summer school, we will not be able to offer summer school beyond 2023. But we will offer an excellent program while we have the opportunity funded through the grant," Janelle Finn, director of curriculum accountability and professional development, said in a posting on the district website. 

New York State is requiring school districts to post plans on their websites by Thursday, and the federal government is requiring districts to solicit input from teachers, parents and other interested individuals and groups. Many districts have meetings with stakeholder groups and asked the community to fill out online surveys, some more involved than others.

Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda asked community members if they support various upgrades to buildings and school grounds, improvements to student access to technology, programs to combat learning loss and address social/emotional well-being, support parents and families and professional development.  

Because the funding has an end date, districts are looking to boost learning with non-recurring costs with capital improvements, such as enhancing air ventilation systems, upgrading water fountains to bottle filling stations, new security systems or upgrading computers and improving Wi-Fi.

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