ALBANY — School boards across the state are running out of time to finalize budgets, and it looks increasingly possible they will need to move forward without updated state aid figures, as many district officials had hoped to see this week.
When asked Friday whether he planned to announce more state aid cuts for school districts and local governments, Gov. Andrew Cuomo demurred and instead expressed confidence that federal lawmakers would soon feel the political pressure to support state and local governments with new stimulus funding.
“I believe Washington, despite dysfunction and politics, will ultimately provide funds to states and local governments,” Cuomo said. “I believe we will receive Washington funding due to the survival instincts of elected officials.”
But school districts are looking to adopt budgets no later than Thursday, pushing to finalize the spending plans with enough time to notify their community, print and package budget materials and send out absentee ballots in time for voters to return those ballots by June 9. They had also been holding off as long as possible to get any updates from the state on funding.
“It’s kind of a weird thing: districts have to adopt budgets by Thursday, at the same time they are waiting to see what the governor will propose, at the same time the governor is waiting to see what the federal government will do,” said Paul Heiser, senior research analyst at the New York State School Boards Association.
District officials for weeks have been advised by statewide associations to hold off on finishing a budget until officials updated state aid figures; some district officials during school board meetings this week had expressed hope they would receive a budget update by the end of the week.
But Cuomo’s response Friday leaves in doubt whether districts will get any more information about state funding before they have to adopt budget proposals to put up for voter approval. Without those state aid numbers, districts will have to plan budgets based on their best guess about how much they will ultimately receive in state funding for next school year.
During Cuomo’s press briefing Friday, Robert Mujica, the state budget director, said if Congress doesn’t come up with additional stimulus, the state would have to make drastic reductions to programs like education.
“In the event those funds don’t occur then we will have to make those reductions,” said Mujica, noting that those reductions would be detailed “sometime in May.”
While many district officials had been reluctant to detail budget cuts without knowing how deep they would have to cut, more and more districts this week started to outline budgets based on the yet-to-be-announced reductions in aid. A draft budget presented to the Amsterdam school board this week, for instance, made plans for as much as a 20-percent reduction in aid; the budget eliminated nearly 30 staff positions and called for cutting all non-sports student extracurricular activities. Sports would also see some cuts.
“We are facing a lot of uncertainty,” Colleen DiCaprio, Amsterdam’s school business official, said during the district’s Wednesday night board meeting. “We did the best we could based on what we somewhat know.”
In Niskayuna, a school district budget proposal that has stirred community frustration eliminates 35 staff positions on the assumption the district would lose about 10 percent of its state aid, or just over $1.1 million.
“It would be irresponsible for us not planning for a reduction in aid,” Niskayuna Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. said at the district’s Monday night school board meeting.
Once a budget is approved by voters, it serves two overarching functions: setting an overall spending limit for the district and setting the tax levy, the total amount the district can bring in from local property taxes. Districts are not allowed to exceed the spending limit approved in their budgets, although Bob Lowry, who analyzes state policy for the New York State Council of School Superintendents, and Brian Fessler, an analyst with the school boards association, said there is a precedent for the state treating extra revenue as a “grant in aid” and allowing districts to spend that money beyond the level their voters had approved.
The budget uncertainty presents districts some tricky challenges as they look to communicate to their community a budget not based directly on actual state aid figures. Some budgets, for instance, may ask residents to approve painful teacher layoffs and program cuts even as the governor is now expressing optimism that federal lawmakers will come up with stimulus funds for the district.
On the other hand, if a district moves forward with an overly-rosy budget proposal and state aid is ultimately reduced, that district may need to institute mid-year cuts, eliminating staff and programs after the school year has already started.
“I think everyone is doing the best they can under a bad situation, but districts have to proceed, Lowry, the analyst said Friday.
District officials are also looking to be cautious with budgets they put before voters. Without guidance on holding a budget revote, the threat of a contingency budget — a budget based on no tax levy increase — has district officials largely avoiding budgets that seek to go above the tax cap, which would require 60-percent voter approval.
“Neither legally nor practically could districts do a second vote on June 16, and there is nothing that has been done to authorize a second date,” Lowry said, referring to the budget revote date set by state law.
School boards across the region are slated to meet next week as they press forward with budget proposals that many have described as the most challenging in years.