Dangerous waters ahead for school funding

State aid. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has threatened a 20 percent permanent across-the-board cut in aid to schools, hospitals and local governments if Congress doesn’t enact more aid to replace the state’s lost revenue.

05 Oct 2020 | 01:01

In past years budgets adopted in the spring have enabled local public schools to chart a safe course for the coming year.

Not this year. There are dangerous waters ahead.

The pandemic has hammered state revenues, raising fears among local educators as they confront the challenge of reopening their schools that they will not receive a substantial amount of the aid they have been promised. State aid comprised almost 25 percent of the Warwick Valley budget, 28 percent of Greenwood Lake’s spending plan and 29 percent of Florida’s.

“It’s very unsettling” trying to build a budget without knowing revenues said Warwick Valley Superintendent Dr. David Leach.

“Obviously, everybody is very worried,” agreed Florida Superintendent Jan Jehrman.

Look to Washington

What happens in Washington over the next few weeks will reverberate in Orange County classrooms.

Associated Press reports that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has threatened a 20 percent permanent across-the-board cut in aid to schools, hospitals and local governments if Congress doesn’t enact more aid to replace the state’s lost revenue. A new provision in the state budget gives the governor the power to withhold aid to localities, including schools, subject to legislative review.

“The state cannot fully fund school aid for the entire school year without federal aid,” Robert Mujica, the state’s budget director, wrote in a Sept. 16 Albany Times-Union column.

The state budget passed in April appropriated the same amount of “Foundation Aid,” the main source of assistance to schools, in 2020-2021 as last year.

Support varied widely among districts for other forms of expense-driven assistance including aid for pre-kindergarten, special education placements, school construction and transportation.

The state imposed on all school districts an aid reduction styled as a “pandemic adjustment.” It was $191,980 for Warwick Valley, $91,837 for Florida and $71,920 for Greenwood Lake.

All told, Warwick Valley applied $23,476,618 in state aid towards a $94,440,390 budget. Florida used 6,669,600 in state aid in a $22,699,753 budget, while Greenwood Lake allocated $7,284,069 to a $26,360,265 spending plan.

‘No need for a crystal ball’

April state aid projections showed increases of .82 percent for Warwick Valley and 3.07 percent for Greenwood Lake. The state projected a 2.16 percent decline for Florida.

In an unusual move Warwick cut the anticipated Foundation Aid applied to the budget by 2.4 percent and total aid by 2.9 percent.

“You didn’t need a crystal ball” to know that state aid was under stress as the district crafted its budget, Leach said. Spending less was only prudent, he said, adding that he was surprised more districts hadn’t taken that approach.

Leach said he didn’t know whether he had done enough to avert a meltdown later in the year, but he pointed out that schools are “human capital” - teachers and other employees. Any mid-year cuts “have the potential to really hurt children.”

Florida ‘is now considering every possible scenario’

Howard Cohen, Florida’s business administration, said a proposed cut of 20 percent “can be devastating to any school district. Going into the development of the 2020-2021 budget, we were aware that our state aid was going to see a reduction and it was developed along those lines ahead of the pandemic. Further, the district is now considering every possible scenario in terms of funding for the balance of the present year and the 2021-2022 school year.”

Cohen recalls mid-year budget cuts another local administrator characterized as “nearly catastrophic” instituted in 1992 by Gov. Mario Cuomo. Asked to discuss the impact on Florida, he said, “I’m trying to forget.”

School districts were alarmed when the state announced plans to withhold some of their aid in July and August, $400,000 in Warwick Valley and $37,000 in Florida.

The action didn’t affect Foundation Aid, but that program could be on the chopping block if a bailout is not approved in Washington.

Greenwood Lake Schools Superintendent Sarah Hadden said that the district was able to carry over some money from last year and could dip into reserves to offset some mid-year aid cuts. A 20 percent cut would amount to $1.5 million.

The district’s students are in school five days a week, she said, and “we need our full staff.” Right now, the district doesn’t know how much to expect in cuts and whether the reductions would be temporary or permanent.

All the uncertainty “is very frustrating,” she said

Some districts have announced layoffs

Mujica insisted in his column that “New York hasn’t made any cut to school aid. School aid reductions are a last resort. Instead, we’re calibrating spending against revenue declines.... Since June, we’ve temporarily withheld approximately 1 percent of the $26.4 billion the state sends to school districts, or about $300 million of the $75 billion in total school spending. By the end of this month, the state will have paid school districts nearly $11.5 billion.”

Still, some school districts, Pine Bush and Newburgh among them, announced plans for mass layoffs. Some districts have been influenced by their greater dependence on state aid and the particular needs of low-income students. Districts also have argued that they must act quickly to minimize future disruptions.

The state’s decision to pay September aid in full has eased the pressure on schools without providing much clarity about what the future holds. The July and August payments have not yet been released.

Newburgh has been able to stave off layoffs for the time being.

‘State and federal aids are necessary’

Some school districts are acting prematurely as they undertake mass layoffs,” Mujica wrote. The state hasn’t withheld 20 percent of school aid. We all need to work together to fight for the federal assistance we deserve. New Yorkers gave $116 billion more to the federal government than we got back over the past five years, and now is the time when we need them to act to protect our children.”

Florida’s Cohen said, “Going into the pandemic, all New York residents were aware of a massive state deficit which has only gotten worse. Each school district, as a subdivision of the state, must plan and plot its own course through these troubling times.

“State and federal aids are necessary to alleviate the burden placed upon taxpayers,” Cohen added. “I’ve never been one to criticize the amount or determination of state aid, but rather have crafted a budget to maintain programs while being fiscally responsible to the residents.”