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‘MORE THAN A CHALLENGE’: Job cuts, fewer programs, and uncertainty in Auburn as school funding issues persist

Board members: Auburn has had to cut upwards of 80 teaching jobs in recent years

– By Josh Durso

It wouldn’t be a stretch to call the Auburn Enlarged City School District’s financial situation a crisis. Officials in the district are working hard to maintain adequate levels of staff, without hurting taxpayers, and fulfilling obligations laid out by New York State.

Auburn schools have seen a slight increase in enrollment. In fact, a 2019 report published by FingerLakes1.com found that they were one of just three districts in the region that saw an increase in enrollment. That increase though hasn’t come with more staff. It hasn’t even come with maintained staff levels.

Board of Education member Ian Phillips says the district has had to cut 20% of its manpower. That translates to about 80 teaching jobs over several years. “Teaching is incredibly difficult — particularly when you’re talking about reading and writing — and cuts have made it increasingly difficult to teach effectively,” Philips said in a recent conversation on the Inside the FLX podcast. “You’re looking for that spark, that light bulb moment,” he continued. “And that takes a long time to develop.”

The Auburn Enlarged City School District is owed nearly $6.5 million. Each legislative session, students, faculty, and board members have boarded a bus — and made the trip to Albany. The hope being to equalize funding for these smaller, urban districts that are facing significant shortfalls. However, it’s a fight on behalf of a lot of districts across the region.

Board of Education Vice President Joe Sheppard says Auburn isn’t alone. Geneva, Seneca Falls, Elmira, and many others are staring down shortfalls in funding that rank in the millions.

“It makes every aspect of running a district a challenge,” Sheppard said. He spoke to the necessities of funding support staff — like social workers — and even maintenance staff inside schools. “Our class sizes have been growing significantly over the last several years because of the cuts to teachers,” he continued. “When Ian and I were in school class sizes were around 18 or 19. Now they’re approaching 27, and could go higher.”

If not inside the classroom, the place where the district has felt the budget shortfall most-intensely is in support services. Auburn serves as the epicenter for services provided to residents in Cayuga County, so there is a natural need for more services inside schools. Social work is one of these flashpoints. “We have one caseworker for 2,500 students,” Sheppard said. That person is responsible for the entirety of the district’s five elementary schools. “The state suggests that caseload be capped at 500 per worker.”

It’s a complicated problem that officials, teachers, and board members feel unheard. Despite their best efforts, and repeated trips to Albany — little change has happened in recent years. Phillips says a tax increase on the ultra-wealthy is an option for the state. But he’s not confident it will happen.

“Elected officials say they’re not voting for tax increases, but they’re just asking us to raise taxes instead,” he added. “It’s not working. The implications for New York State in terms of creating jobs and good, stable communities are significant. We have to invest in our schools if we want to grow.”

Both took issue with the fact that even though elected leaders in Albany say they’re not raising taxes, taxes are then forced to be elevated at the local level — as state mandates and expectations grow exponentially. It’s a condition that’s only worsened by need.

“We’re at a loss and we need New York State and elected officials across New York to understand that the funding model needs work,” Sheppard added. “We need to see the funding. Our schools have become so much more than just places where students learn. They’re where students are receiving services that they can’t get anywhere else, but need.”


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