Schenectady city schools received the biggest school aid increase in the region under a state budget deal set by lawmakers Sunday.
The district scored an over-$7 million increase in foundation aid, the state’s core education funding formula, and a total state aid increase of 10 percent. Other districts in the region will see foundation aid increases ranging from 0.75 percent in some well-heeled districts to Schenectady’s nearly 7.3 percent increase. Albany’s foundation aid increase topped 6 percent, Amsterdam will see a 5.85 percent increase and Troy will see foundation aid increase by over 5 percent.
In Schenectady, the new foundation aid funding – which in a tweet the district teachers union called “sizable” – will give district officials room in the coming days to invest millions in new student programs and services while likely providing some tax relief to local district property owners.
During community budget forums that started in February, district officials asked for feedback on about $20 million in potential investments, which included efforts to better engage students, strengthen mental health supports and expand after school learning opportunities for students.
Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring on Sunday said he and other administrators would spend the next couple days finalizing a budget proposal to take to the school board on Wednesday night. He said given Sunday’s aid numbers he expected to able to add about $4 million in new programs and services for students. But he cautioned he still needs to finalize the budget figures, saying the final budget addition could range from a low of $2.5 million to as much as $5 million. He also said he expected the district to cuts its tax levy, providing another round of relief for Schenectady property owners.
“It feels like the state definitely made an attempt to drive foundation aid increases toward needier districts, and it’s going to give us another opportunity to increase services for kids and to lower the tax levy,” Spring said. “I’m confident we will be able to do that again.”
Meanwhile, Mohonasen’s foundation aid is set to increase just 1 percent over the current year, doing little to help the district climb out of its $2 million budget hole.
With lawmakers boosting Mohonasen’s foundation aid dollars about $58,000 over the governor’s January budget proposal, Sunday’s budget gives the district some space to spare the district’s cherished music program from cuts. But the district’s budget gap remains significant as officials look to induce retirements to create savings. The school board was scheduled to meet April 1 to discuss where the state budget leaves their spending plans, calling for a closed session to discuss “specific personnel matters” related to the budget considerations.
Lawmakers, some of who had called for boosting foundation aid by more than $1 billion in a bid to fund approximately $4 billion over three or four years, ultimately approved an increase of $618 million. This figure was an increase from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed foundation aid increase of $338 million. The new education dollars brings overall state education aid to $27.9 billion, a 3.8 percent increase from the current year’s budget.
The foundation aid increases, which were focused in poorer districts, will ease the budget outlook in some Capital Region districts. But the aid still falls far short of covering big budget gaps in Mohonasen and Johnstown, where district officials are working out packages of tough cuts to cover shortfalls. Johnstown, which is considering raising the local tax levy as much as 50 percent, will see a 3 percent increase in foundation aid, worth about $460,000.
The budget also solidified the property tax cap, one of the governor’s top priorities this year. The tax cap limits how much school district’s can raise local taxes each year with a simple majority vote; the actual tax levy growth cap is calculated by individual districts each year using a 2 percent base.
Local education officials and advocacy groups have complained the tax cap limits local districts’ revenue-raising capabilities without helping to contain annual cost increases or state requirements. Cuomo and other supporters have championed the cap’s constraint of local tax increases since its inception.
The education community on Sunday cheered other provisions in the budget, including language that allows districts to establish a teacher retirement reserve. Those reserve funds will enable districts to set aside money each year that can then be used to pay for annual teacher pension contributions, payments that fluctuate dramatically from year to year and cause regular budget angst for district officials.
The budget also allows SUNY community colleges to partner with local school districts to offer dual-enrollment college courses at no cost to high school students, enabling students to accumulate cost-free college credits while still in high school.
State Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, on Sunday criticized the budget for imposing new taxes, establishing a commission to set up public financing of campaigns and eliminating cash bail for some defendants, calling the budget “so bad it’s criminal.”
He also took aim at the state Senate’s new Democratic majority; some of those senators had trumpeted a desire to boost foundation aid by more than what ultimately came to fruition Sunday.
“I’m shocked my Senate majority colleagues who talked a big game did nothing to meaningfully increase education funding compared to when my conference was in the majority,” said Tedisco, in a statement as budget bills were being debated by lawmakers Sunday. He said Democratic lawmakers who had called for boosting foundation aid by more “talked the talk but they couldn’t walk the walk.”