Regents overhaul legislative priorities in face of COVID challenges

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The Board of Regents on Monday started to overhaul its legislative agenda in the face of a massive budget shortfall and new challenges in education, tempering the board’s pre-pandemic priorities.

Education Department staff proposed tabling a number of programs and initiatives the Regents have pushed with state lawmakers in recent years and introduced new proposals to address budgetary and academic issues exacerbated by the pandemic.

The tempered legislative ambition was a nod to the state’s enormous fiscal challenges and the political limits facing the Regents’ annual legislative and state aid proposal, which outline the board’s education funding and policy priorities for the new year.

Education officials also indicated plans to push lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to limit the impact of any budget cuts on high-need school districts and to allow transportation costs district accrued delivering meals and assignments during school closures to be reimbursable under state budget rules. The draft proposal also looks to refocus state efforts on improving remote learning and ensuring adequate technology access for all students.

Interim Education Commissioner Betty Rosa said putting the initiatives on hold was not a sign that the department did not support them but a reflection of the budget constraints facing the state.

“We have to keep in mind the fiscal problems,” she said during Monday’s meeting. “It’s not a reflection of our not wanting to move forward or advance certain priorities.”

Many of the issues were included in the Regents legislative proposal last year and touch on plans to expand teacher training programs, encourage educator diversity, bolster programs supporting English language learning, review the state’s graduation requirements and strengthen early childhood education options.

The proposals state education officials said they plan to put on hold for the time being included the following:

– $1.6 million to establish three regional assistance centers focused on supporting childcare and early education setting around the state;

– $2.5 million to improve teacher training programs for preschool educators and school leaders;

– $4 million to expand the educator workforce specializing in students with special needs, including college loan forgiveness;

– $15 million to bolster education for English language learners;

The Regents did add a proposal centered on supporting students, parents and educators now learning remotely as a result of the pandemic and shifting other initiatives to focus on bolstering student mental health support and general wellness. While the board last year sought $200,000 annually for two year to fund a review of the state’s graduation requirements, on Monday state officials said they would seek private funding for the project.

The board also highlighted the difficulty of developing its annual state aid proposal for next school year at a time when it’s not clear how much state aid school districts can count on for the remainder of this school year.

Even funding for last school year still remains an issue for school districts: When schools closed in March, districts still accrued transportation costs to distribute meals, deliver school assignments or pay bus companies to stay on call in case schools were told to reopen.

The Regents and school district officials are looking for state lawmakers to make those expenses allowable as reimbursements under state budget, which pay districts back for transporting students to school. And where districts did see their transportation funding drop dramatically during school closures, education officials are concerned that will create an “artificially low” baseline for the reimbursement payments districts plan for in subsequent years.

“We need to honor the work that was done,” Rosa said of funding the transportation expenses.

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