ALBANY — The flow of state funding to school districts has started to slow as district officials and education analysts see what could be the start of deep funding cuts if the state doesn’t receive more federal dollars.
The slowdown in state funding comes as districts prepare to reopen school buildings under a litany of new health precautions, spending money on personal protective equipment, building ventilation upgrades, transportation changes, technology upgrades and much more.
But the initial reductions – or withholding – of state aid would ultimately pale in comparison to the 20 percent aid cuts Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said would be necessary if Congress doesn’t provide the state and school districts with additional stimulus money.
“It seems like it’s a preview of a more official aid cut that’s been talked about for months,” Andrew Van Alstyne, director of education and research at the state Association of School Business Officials, said Tuesday.
State aid payments due to school districts in July and August – a combination of money for costly special education services and building improvements tied to last school year – were released to districts at 80 percent of the total amount due. It’s not clear if the district payments were cut or if a portion was withheld and will be paid later, Van Alstyne said.
Niskayuna Central School District received just 80 percent of an August payment from the state, district business official Carrie Nyc-Chevrier told the school board during its Tuesday meeting, noting it was not clear if the 20 percent of the payment withheld was a temporary or permanent cut.
Mohonasen Central School District also had 20 percent of an August payment withheld – or nearly $82,000 – according to Chris Ruberti, the district’s business official.
Districts in recent weeks were also concerned about funding for pre-kindergarten programs. While state officials have indicated they will fund the pre-K grants, it’s not clear if they will be fully funded.
Questar III BOCES, which advises scores of school districts on state funding issues, on Friday issued a message noting the aid payments had been reduced and other payments would likely continue to come in lower than expected.
“Going forward it looks like any aid payment with a statutory due date will be paid at 80 percent of the amount due, but anything without a statutory due date may be completely withheld by [the Division of Budget] at this time,” Questar wrote in its note.
The state budget enacted in April gave state budget officials leeway to withhold, slow or cut aid payments to local governments, including school districts, if revenues come in slower than expected. Cuomo has suggested districts could lose out on as much as 20 percent of the state aid included in the budget, funding levels that had been effectively frozen from the year before. But he and others have held out hope that a deal brokered in Washington would infuse the state with enough new money to hold off school budget cuts. So far no deal has materialized.
Bob Lowry, who analyzes state education policy for the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said school aid payments over the summer aren’t as significant as the payments due at the end of September and October. He said districts are awaiting more details about a deficit reduction plan from the governor and said across-the-board cuts wouldn’t be the best approach to cutting school funding. Since districts receive varying levels of state aid, with the neediest districts receiving a larger share of its money from the state, across-the-board cuts would disproportionately harm poorer school districts, Lowry said. State budget officials have indicated more deficit reduction details would be released sometime around September.
Lowry said the state budget’s freeze to foundation aid — the state’s core education funding formula — had already set districts back in covering the types of healthcare and salary costs that increase each year. On top of that, he said, districts are absorbing new costs this school year as they prepare to reopen schools in a safe way. Now, it’s possible school aid isn’t just frozen but rolled back.
“It’s starting,” Lowry said of the funding cuts. “Where it goes? That remains to be seen.”
The reduced payments sparked widespread interest Wednesday as lawmakers and education advocacy groups seized on the first reductions in school funding, highlighting the immense challenge districts have in trying to reopen schools.
“For New York state to intentionally hold back 20 percent of state funding for public education at any time is unconscionable,” Jasmine Gripper, exectutive director of advocacy group Alliance for Quality Education, said in a released statement. “To do so now, weeks before schools are set to reopen amidst a pandemic, is a direct attack on the safety of students, educators and our communities.”