While some public health officials warn of a coming second wave of coronavirus this fall, school officials face the uncertainty of a wave of state budget cuts that could cost hundreds of jobs and reduce education services.
Gov. Cuomo threatened potential 20% cuts in state aid to schools to help New York state close its own projected $14 billion budget gap when the pandemic’s economic toll first started in the spring.
Those potential cuts are on hold and might not happen, according to the state budget office.
“There have been no permanent cuts and only 1% of school aid has been temporarily withheld and, going forward, any actions will take district need into account,” said Freeman Klopott, a spokesman for the New York State Division of the Budget.
“Until we have clarity on the amount of federal assistance the state will receive, it is premature for the State to make any permanent spending reductions, at which point all options would be considered to limit the impacts of a federal failure to act and offset the State’s $62 billion, four-year revenue loss.”
$1.7 BILLION HELD BACK
Overall New York state sends $27 billion to local school districts each year. So far the state has withheld approximately $1.7 billion, according to a report in the Albany Times-Union. Local school property taxes generate another $23 billion, according to the New York state comptroller’s office.
Current education spending in New York State ranks highest in the nation. New York spends $19,697 per pupil, according to figures from Education Week magazine, adjusted for regional cost differences. Other large states spend much less.
In California, average spending is $10,281. Illinois spends $13,829 per pupil, while Florida and Texas costs are $9,764 and $8,619 respectively.
In Connecticut, the figure is $17,798, while New Jersey spends $16,543. Cost per pupil in Massachusetts is $14,529.
NO CUTS FOR UPSCALE DISTRICTS
In April, a report from the state showed a wide range of proposed cuts to state aid. Many wealthier districts faced zero cuts while lower-income districts saw large reductions.
Peekskill faced a cut of 14% while districts including Port Chester, Katonah and Chappaqua, among others, showed no cuts. Peekskill receives nearly half of its $98.5 million annual budget from state aid, so the district is heavily reliant on money from Albany.
The uncertainty coming from the state regarding how much cuts will total is making life difficult to plan for those districts.
“The state aid cuts to school districts will disproportionately impact schools which heavily rely upon state aid to educate their children,” said Peekskill Superintendent Dr. David Mauricio.
So far, Peekskill has lost $750,000 in expected state money, while spending $167,000 not budgeted to address expenses related to the Covid crisis, according to the Peekskill school finance office.
However, if the state does make an overall 20% cut, Peekskill will be short $9.2 million, nearly 10% of its total spending for the school year.
Several districts throughout the state, including Yonkers, Newburgh and Pine Bush, have already announced plans to lay off staff and teachers. Yonkers subsequently backed off the layoffs after the state delivered the district’s September state aid payments.
While Peekskill doesn’t contemplate layoffs now, the possibility is real if those cuts happen.
“The impact will be experienced differently in each community,” Dr. Mauricio said. “My fear is that school districts that can least afford to sustain a loss of funding will be impacted the most.”
The Lakeland school district has so far lost $654,267 in state funding, and would be cut by $8.63 million if the state does impose a 20%, cut according to District Budget Director Binoy Alunkal. The district’s total budget is $164.8 million.
Lakeland has spent $250,000 for Covid related supplies and hired eight health aides immediately, as well as additional teaching assistants to help with remote teaching and learning.
The district is using $5.56 million from reserve funds to help balance this year’s budget and will need another $4.3 million from reserves if a full 20% state cut is imposed.
Lakeland furloughed 140 employees, but planned to bring back 129 of them in late September.
The Hendrick Hudson school district has only lost 2% of its state funding so far and has been able to absorb the cut, according to Enrique Catalan, Assistant Superintendent for Business. Hen Hud’s total budget is $82.1 million, and the district receives $6.6 million in state aid.
STATE PICKS POCKET
New York state has also hijacked federal assistance for schools that was sent from the federal government under the CARES Act approved by Congress and signed by the president.
Peekskill received $1.037 million in that federal aid but had their state money slashed by the same amount under a state cut called a “Pandemic Adjustment.” In Hen Hud, the district lost $166,000 in state aid that it received in federal funds.
The state also continues to spend money on projects that some might consider less of a priority than school funding.
According to the Empire Report, state funding grants are continuing to flow despite the billions in state budget shortfalls.
They include $5 million for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo; $1 million for the Hebrew Academy for Special Children in Brooklyn; $500,000 for New York City Housing Authority basketball courts in Brooklyn; $340,000 for a “composting education center” at the City University of New York; $300,000 for a “cheerleading team room” in the Levittown school district; and $69,500 to restore a sand dune in the village of Asharoken on Long Island.
Those funds come from borrowing by the State Dormitory Authority, and not the general fund.
School districts administrators could avoid reduced funding if the federal government approves billions in new money to states. But while the political wars in Washington rage on, Peekskill officials hope that financially poorer districts don’t become the victims.
“Understandably, due to Covid-19, the state’s resources have also been impacted,” Dr. Mauricio said. “The reality is that this scenario exacerbates the issues of fiscal inequities for some school districts. We will do our very best to maintain the level of instruction, programs and supports for our Peekskill children.”
Jim Roberts is a freelance business reporter based in Peekskill.