Capital Region

Fears of devastating COVID-19 school budget cuts mount; Groups call for federal funding

Gov. Cuomo: "Call Washington" for help
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, and Mohonasen Superintendent Shannon Shine, right
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, and Mohonasen Superintendent Shannon Shine, right

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, News, Saratoga County, Schenectady County

CAPITAL REGION — When asked Sunday how school districts should prepare for budgets for next year without knowing whether state funding would be furthered reduced, Gov. Andrew Cuomo urged educators to lobby other elected officials.

“Call Washington,” Cuomo said Sunday during his daily press conference, urging New Yorkers to press federal lawmakers to pass another stimulus package that includes funding to boost flagging state budgets.

Many educators across New York have called Washington in recent weeks, expressing concerns that without federal support schools will face devastating budget cuts next year.

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The New York State School Boards Association on Monday warned that districts across the state “could be forced to cut tens of thousands of positions” without federal funding, likening the scale of the potential cuts to the 20,000 school jobs lost between 2009 and 2012, during the Great Recession.

“The quality of education in all of our communities – urban, suburban and rural – is at stake,” Robert Schneider, the organization’s executive director, said in a statement. “Without additional federal stimulus funding for education, it will likely take our schools years to return to normal.”

Some new details emerged during Sunday’s briefing. Robert Mujica, the governor’s budget director, said school districts could face “up to a 20 percent additional reduction” in state aid, without specifying what form those cuts would take. State budget officials will review the status of the state’s finances April 30, potentially laying out more budget reductions to districts after that review.

Mujica promised districts would have updated budget figures sometime in “mid-May” with enough time to include any new reductions in budgets that will go up for voter approval.

“Right now we are telling you this is where we stand, this is what the revenue picture is, those are the facts,” Mujica said Sunday. “By the time they put their school budget votes together, they will have those numbers.”

Cuomo is calling for more federal funding. Without more federal funding, he has said, school districts budgets will be further reduced. But Republican leaders in Washington have thus far resisted calls to offer more money to the states.

President Donald Trump on Monday also stepped into the fray over support to the states, suggesting federal stimulus of that kind would amount to a “bailout” for states and cities run by Democrats.

Still, school district leaders are preparing annual budgets without two key pieces of information: How much money will they get in state aid and when will they have to put up a budget for public approval? There’s still isn’t a hard date for when districts will put up budgets for voter approval or the logistics of how they will do that.

“I don’t know, we haven’t gotten there yet,” Cuomo said Sunday when asked about the logistics of holding a budget vote.

Without hard numbers to work from, school district leaders are being cautious about tipping their hand on the types of reductions they would need to cover deeper cuts to state aid. 

“We have started preparing alternative budgets,” Galway Superintendent Brita Donovan told Galway’s school board during a meeting last week. She noted that a 20-percent reduction would amount to over $1 million for the district.

In Mohonasen, school district officials have narrowed in on a budget proposal in recent days that adds a pair of new positions and increases the tax levy by 2.88 percent, the district tax cap. District officials increased its reliance on so-called “appropriated fund balance,” money unspent in the current budget that is allocated to cover expenses in next year’s budget, to cover a reduction in state aid from what Cuomo initially outlined in January. District officials have yet to formally broach the potential of coping with as much as a 20-percent reduction in aid. But that level of funding cut would be devastating, Mohonasen Superintendent Shannon Shine said Monday.

“I don’t know what school districts could survive,” Shine said, noting that 20 percent of the Mohonasen budget equates to about $2.5 million. “I don’t see how we can survive without federal intervention.”

Shine said he has started to consider where the district could cut if state aid was further reduced, but that he doesn’t want to plan too many details.

He said once the district gets a specific funding reduction, he will engage the community within the district and in the broader community about how to move forward. He said additional budget cuts would have to be focused in non-mandated programs like athletics, music, other extracurricular activities and reading and math specialists.

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“Everyone could potentially take a hit, but I can’t name you a hit that would not cost things,” Shine said, noting that the district made tough cuts last year and has among the lowest per-pupil spending rates in the region.

He said he would have to outline the specific financials and the costs of different programs, working to gauge what programs the community valued most and how to still balance the budget without setting up more financial difficulties in future years.

“I would have to basically lay it out honestly and openly; I would have to be explicit about programs, dollar amounts, what’s mandated and not mandated,” Shine said. “It rapidly becomes a very complicated and emotional issue.”

 

 

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