ALBANY — State education officials are calling on their budget counterparts to consider poorer school districts’ needs as 20-percent state aid reductions continue to devastate school budgets.
While a spokesman for the state Division of Budget has indicated district needs will be taken into account as reductions continue, it’s not clear when or what kind of plan to weight factors like poverty and student needs will emerge from state leaders.
How funding reductions are levied against districts, whether an across-the-board reduction for all districts or something that accounts for specific districts needs, could amount to millions of dollars of state aid lost or gained for districts around the state.
As the state started reducing aid payments to schools by 20 percent in recent months, high-need districts like Schenectady and Albany, which count on the state for a greater share of funding than wealthier districts, estimated massive budget shortfalls and laid off hundreds of teachers and support staff in the days before school restarted. Both districts also pared back in-person instruction plans in light of the projected funding cuts.
Interim Education Commissioner Betty Rosa during the monthly Board of Regents meeting Monday said she and other officials have discussed the issue of how funds are reduced with budget officials and suggested another meeting was scheduled soon.
“[We] talked to DOB and others about the formula, making sure we don’t just have a 20-percent situation across-the-board but rather differentiate for those districts that depend on state aid,” Rosa said during the meeting.
At least one member of the Board of Regents, though, called on the board to be more clear and vocal about its position how best to cut aid to districts. Regent Lester Young noted the board’s emphasis on equity; he said he hoped the Regents would collectively stand for weighting aid cuts to mitigate the impact on the state’s highest-need districts.
“I would just hope that the board has an appetite to take a position,” Young said Monday. “For all of this to happen and for us to not take a position – I don’t want to use strong language – I will just say is not in keeping with out rhetoric.”
In the state budget office’s most recent financial update, it signaled it’s planning on considering district needs if the cuts continue and are not offset by new federal funding.
“Going forward, in the absence of federal funding, school district need will be taken into account if funds are withheld,” a budget office spokesman told the Wall Street Journal last week.
As district leaders and education analysts look forward to major state aid payments due later this month, expected to be paid out with the 20-percent reductions, some advocates are weighing taking the state to court to demand state officials account for district needs in its aid reduction plans. Meanwhile, districts are continuing to grapple with the consequences of reduced aid and increased costs as they reopen schools to students and manage a mix of in-person and virtual instruction.
“Obviously, these are choppy waters right now, and we are trying to do this in a way that supports our communities, schools and students,” Rosa said.