With a stalled economy and projections of plummeting tax revenue, elected officials feared last winter that school budgets across New York would have to be slashed. Then, the federal government approved billions of dollars in relief to local governments and school districts, including more than $7 billion for New York City schools.
Families and educators dreamed big. Many called for smaller class sizes. They wanted more social workers and reading specialists. They wished for new after-school programs and devices for children, according to readers responding to a Chalkbeat survey last spring.
Some of the funding will cover many of the items on the readers’ wishlists, as well as providing funds to cover the costs of keeping school buildings operating and academic recovery, according to an analysis by the Independent Budget Office, or IBO. But the largest chunk — about $1.9 billion — will be for an expansion of the city’s prekindergarten program for 3-year-olds over the next several years.
A little less than half of the total pot is being spent this school year, with the rest earmarked for initiatives through the 2024-25 school year. Mayor Eric Adams, who took office in January, inherited spending plans outlined by his predecessor, Bill de Blasio. He signaled last month that he supported the pre-K spending but could change other plans before the stimulus funds run out.
“We’re going to examine the dollars we have remaining to spend and make sure that we spend it correctly,” Adams told reporters. “Would I have done some things differently? Yes. But we have to look at what’s in front of us right now.”
Advocates and parent leaders say there is still confusion on how the nation’s largest school system is using this windfall of COVID relief, as well as what it means at the school level. The publicly available data doesn’t show how individual schools spent their portions of COVID relief — and much of the money is being spent centrally.
“Parents are actually really interested, especially when they hear the dollar amount,” said Jasmine Gripper, executive director of Alliance for Quality Education, a school funding advocacy group. “They’re asking, ‘How do I see what my school got or what my school is doing with it?’”
Chalkbeat looked at the top line funding breakdown to spell out how the money will be spent this year and down the road.
Where the money is going this year
New York City’s education department has earmarked 43% of its stimulus money for covering expenses during this fiscal year, which ends June 30. To date, the city has spent about half of that $3.1 billion, per an IBO spending tracker.
The single largest piece of the pie for this year — about $820 million — is propping up “existing costs that might otherwise have required budget cuts if we had not received federal aid,” according to an education department spending plan. Asked for more details, a department spokesperson said this money includes “supporting custodial workers who helped keep school communities safe during these challenging times.” (Similarly, the first COVID relief package the city ever received — separate from the $7 billion in stimulus dollars currently in play — was used to cover paychecks for custodians.)
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The city has also created various programs to catch students up this year, including its summer enrichment program before the start of this school year, assessments to screen for literacy, extra services for students with disabilities, and other academic recovery initiatives. Taken together, these programs add up to more than $750 million.
Part of this is $350 million that the city sent directly to schools to create their own after-school or weekend tutoring programs, provide extra support for English language learners, offer more professional development and boost arts programming. While they can spend the money to pay teachers overtime to run any programs they create, they can’t hire new full-time staff since the funding is temporary. But as some schools have found it difficult to persuade burned-out staff to work overtime, they may have to return unused dollars to the education department.
Roughly $200 million is being spent on a massive project to create a new universal math and English curriculum called “Mosaic,” meant to focus on the diversity of the school system’s students. That curriculum is expected to be in schools by the fall of 2023.
City leaders have planned to spend about $80 million on mental health this fiscal year. The money is covering hiring more social workers so every school has at least one full-time social worker or access to a school-based mental health clinic, according to officials. This funding also includes the cost for a new social-emotional screening tool, used to see where students may need more support in bolstering social skills after prolonged isolation due to the pandemic.
Concerns for the future
The relief money runs out by the end of the 2024-2025 school year, and 56% of the city’s pot is being spent on programs that are expected to expire.
But the temporary cash infusion is also funding some long-term projects — like mental health support and the expansion of 3-K —that the city envisions continuing after federal funding runs out.
Those programs will require the city to pony up $802 million annually, starting in the summer of 2025, according to the IBO.
City officials have repeatedly said they expect city revenue to improve greatly with time as the economy bounces back from the pandemic.
The IBO is more cautious. “This optimism,” the IBO warned in a report, “is not reflected in the revenue outlook in the financial plan for the adopted budget, however, raising questions about the sustainability of these expanded DOE programs.”
The state required districts to explain how they’ll pay for long-term programs once federal relief funding runs out. The education department’s public-facing presentation has no explanation about this, and officials declined to provide further information.
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“They do have the time to fix it if they’re willing to find the efficiencies elsewhere and prioritize,” said Ana Champeny, deputy research director for Citizens Budget Commission, a budget watchdog group.
Concerns about transparency
The rollout of the funding has raised questions about the transparency of the spending, as well as how education officials will measure success or progress of programs meant to help students catch up academically.
When creating their spending plan, education department officials solicited feedback from families last school year, receiving about 2,000 emailed responses, a spokesperson said. Officials held town halls in each borough, where they said they polled “thousands” of attendees to help the education department rank its proposed investments. But those meetings were overshadowed by discussions about building reopening plans and other COVID safety measures, parent leaders say.
Harlem resident Gisele Hearn, who is active with the PTA at Thurgood Marshall Lower Academy, where her grandson is a fifth grader, said she wasn’t aware of those town halls. Had she been, she would have advocated to fund tutoring parents and caregivers in math since their children turn to them for help. She also would have liked funding to address overcrowding at her grandson’s school.
When state lawmakers passed a budget last April, they required school districts to solicit feedback from the public and explain on their websites how they’re spending federal COVID relief dollars. The city’s education department has posted various details of their plan, but it’s not easily accessible on its website and requires some digging to find.
Gripper, from Alliance for Quality Education, wants data on how students are progressing through the year.
For example, her organization has been seeking an explanation from the education department on how they measured success in the city’s Summer Rising program, which for the first time opened summer school to all students who wanted a seat. The scaled-up program had a messy rollout but served as an important bridge to the fall for children who had not attended school in person since March 2020.
“We would like the city to be more intentional and more transparent about how students are doing,” Gripper said.
Andrew Rein, executive director of the Citizens Budget Commission, agreed. There’s a difference between outlining academic recovery costs, for example, and describing what the end goal is.
“Not only do we have to track the dollars, but we also have to make sure the dollars deliver what the students need,” Rein said. “How do we know that’s actually happening?”
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The education department has required most students to take a battery of assessments in order to measure where they stand academically after two disrupted school years. They have not released test results, though some experts cautioned that information might not be useful because there might not be enough data to compare results, or because the variety of assessment options available to schools might complicate the data.
Education department officials did not share any specific benchmarks for the projects funded with stimulus money.
“At this time, our main focus and priority is on championing our school leaders and teachers to utilize the data found through screeners to understand students’ strengths and where supports are needed,” a spokesperson said.
Reema Amin is a reporter covering New York City schools with a focus on state policy and English language learners. Contact Reema at firstname.lastname@example.org.