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Amid budget battle, NYC OKs using stimulus dollars to cover teacher salaries

Stimulus dollars were previously not allowed to cover teacher salaries, but officials changed their tune amid a fight over budget cuts.

Students walk through the lobby of P.S. 89, with ornate murals on the walls and light blue doors.

Students walk through the lobby of P.S. 89. New York City has decided to let schools use stimulus dollars to cover teacher salaries amid an ongoing battle over budget cuts.

José A. Alvarado Jr. for Chalkbeat

New York City schools can now use $100 million of federal stimulus money to pay for school staff, city officials announced Wednesday, as the debate over school budget cuts roiled on. 

The money is not new funding for schools. Rather, it’s a portion of stimulus dollars they’ve already received for “academic recovery” that the city is now allowing schools to use for teacher salaries. It was previously earmarked for various costs, such as overtime pay for tutoring or other extra support, but could not be used for teacher salaries since it’s temporary funding, set to run out in the 2024-25 school year. 

Officials changed their tune after hearing from principals, teachers and families, schools Chancellor David Banks said in a statement. The move comes amid a battle over cuts to school budgets, which have resulted in many schools excessing staff or cutting back programs. 

Mayor Eric Adams announced in February that school budgets would shrink by $215 million for the upcoming school year, in response to projected declining enrollment. (Comptroller Brad Lander has said the cut is even steeper than originally anticipated.) New York City schools have lost about 9.5% of their K-12 students since the start of the pandemic.

“This will help schools continue to serve our students as we work to transition to new enrollment levels,” Banks said. “We must still focus on reversing enrollment declines by winning back families, but that does not mean we cannot act today to provide more relief to our schools.”

Additionally, the city planned to distribute nearly 70% of $50 million in funding on Wednesday to schools that have appealed their budgets because they couldn’t meet the needs of their students. Officials had previously paused on distributing this funding because of a lawsuit filed seeking to invalidate the school budget cuts, according to a press release from City Hall. 

Two teachers and two staffers filed the lawsuit against the city, claiming that officials didn’t follow proper procedure when approving the education department’s budget in June. The legal challenge is expected to be heard in a Manhattan court on Thursday.

Some schools last year struggled to use their “academic recovery” stimulus cash for after-school tutoring programs, in part because they couldn’t convince staff to work overtime. 

And while principals may find it helpful that they can now use this cash to cover a teacher salary, it doesn’t address the budget cuts that are already in place, according to an education department employee who works closely with school budgets and was not authorized to speak to the press. 

“It’s just rearranging money,” the employee said. 

In a press release, the education department said that school leaders can use the money to hire back teachers they’ve excessed. However, that could be tough or even impossible if those staffers have received new jobs. The money may not even cover a full salary, officials from the teachers union said.

“If your staff found another school to take them and took another job, then it may be too late,” the education department employee said. “Then you’re starting from scratch, and you have to interview and hire.”

Reema Amin is a reporter covering New York City schools with a focus on state policy and English language learners. Contact Reema at ramin@chalkbeat.org.

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