Mental health, $5M deficit worry Baldwin school officials

Bridget Downes for LI Herald

October 15, 2020

Originally published in Long Island Herald on October 15, 2020.

State and local elected officials addressed issues challenging the Baldwin School District, including a possible $5 million budget deficit and a looming mental health “crisis,” at the annual Legislative Forum hosted by the Baldwin Council of Parent Teacher Associations last week.

The officials fielded questions from PTA members on Oct. 8 via Zoom as part of the virtual forum, which aimed to provide an “opportunity to meet with our elected officials at all levels of government,” according to a letter written by Kerry Firth, the PTA Council’s second vice president of legislation.

Baldwin Schools Superintendent Dr. Shari Camhi outlined her concerns at the beginning of the meeting, including social-emotional learning, access to technology and the internet, morale and funding, including the budget deficit.

“We have spent over $4 million in extra, non-budgeted money that went to staff; it went to extra teachers; it went to extra cleaners so that we can open our buildings; it went to technology, which we cannot get,” Camhi said, referring to orders for computers that have not yet been delivered. 

The district was told it would be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for its purchases, but when representatives reached out to FEMA, they were told they are not being reimbursed. School officials, Camhi said, were also told that they would not see any cuts in their state aid checks, but from the middle of June to the end of September, the Baldwin School District was shorted $1 million.

“So a million plus $4 million of money spent that was un-budgeted in order to get back to school gives us the $5 million that we are now short in our budget,” she explained.

Camhi said she also predicts a mental health crisis that jeopardizes the social-emotional health of students and teachers.

“Our educators are in emotional distress,” she said. “I listened to them speak about how difficult this environment is for them, how difficult this environment is for our students, how hard they are working to reach our kids through a screen that looks like this, and how they are trying to reach our kids in person as well.”

Not only are educators working above and beyond, she added, “but they are stressed out beyond anything that I can possibly even convey to you.”

The district is doing its best to provide as much emotional support as possible, Camhi said, but she urged officials to seek funding and explore connections to mental health service providers like local hospitals to bolster that support.

A representative of U.S. Rep. Kathleen Rice said the congresswoman “is committed to doing everything she can to make sure the federal government passes the stimulus bill that provides relief for the states, and more importantly, the schools.”

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, whose district includes parts of Baldwin, said, “Until we see what happens Nov. 3, or hopefully very soon after Nov. 3, we don’t have a sense of how big a chasm we have to bridge.”

Revenue must come from either tax increases or the federal government, he added, saying that it may be a combination of both.

“Cutting schools is the last resort that no one wants to do,” Kaminsky said, “and I will choose any alternative before that.”

He and the other elected officials who attended the virtual meeting, including State Assemblywomen Judy Griffin and Taylor Darling, County Legislator Debra Mulé and Town Councilwoman Dorothy Goosby, emphasized the importance of addressing mental health issues. 

“I say that education is the last place that money needs to be cut from because our children are now missing out on being children,” Darling said. “They are missing out on the fundamental things that really give our children that advantage — the social experiences, the field trips, just seeing each other.”

As a psychologist, she said, she is seeing a spike in depression, and while she is concerned, she is grateful for the “strong leadership” in local government.

Griffin said she mentioned to the State Education Department that it would be smart to buy additional computers for districts in bulk because it would be less expensive, faster and would remove the competition between districts across the state. She said she also hopes the emergency funding from the federal government comes swiftly.

“[State Comptroller Tom] DiNapoli will provide a mid-year fiscal report which will give an accurate assessment of where we are now,” Griffin said, “and where the holes are and maybe some revenue stream we’re not aware of.”

Mulé, as a county legislator, noted that she has little control over school budget issues, but said she would assist the district in any way she could.

“Our children right now are being short-changed due to the difficulties of the pandemic,” she said, “and we have to figure this out . . . The county, like all municipalities, is also facing a massive, massive shortfall due to the pandemic, and the only answer is to get money from the federal government.”

Additionally, Goosby said she would like to see to it that no additional charter schools enter her district because they take funding away from local public schools. She noted that things would work more efficiently if everyone were to work together.