The Board of Regents used their annual state aid proposal Monday to call for school district funding to be restored to the 2019-2020 school year levels and to allow costs districts incurred delivering meals and assignments in the spring to be reimbursed.
The Regents proposal – traditionally an opening bid in back-and-forth budget negotiations among lawmakers and the governor hashing out school funding levels – also calls for increasing incentives to encourage districts considering mergers and providing greater flexibility for districts to spend from their reserve accounts.
The plan does not call for boosting education funding levels to new heights – as is usually the case – but instead seeks to restore the baseline state funding level of districts to the 2019-2020 level, before lawmakers last spring imposed “pandemic adjustments” reducing overall state aid over $1 billion. Federal stimulus that matched the state’s reduction backfilled funding for districts, but without those same federal dollars in play this year, the Regents hope state dollars will fill back those cuts over two years. The proposal calls for $453 million to be paid under the current year’s budget and another $680 million included in next year’s budget.
The Regents also called on lawmakers to change state education law to allow transportation reimbursement payments for expenses districts incurred in the spring when they paid to keep bus drivers on call and used transportation services to deliver meals and schoolwork to students.
Districts have highlighted the transportation reimbursements as a critical and urgent issue that could further exacerbate budget difficulties if not fixed. State Education Department officials recently ruled that the expenses did not qualify for reimbursement, but the departments has pushed for a legislative fix to ensure the reimbursements flow.
State officials noted the uncertainty surrounding not just next year’s school aid level but also just how much state money districts will receive this year – for which districts have already completed nearly half of the fiscal year. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has suggested 20 percent aid cuts would be necessary if federal support was not forthcoming. The Regents proposal demands that if any further cuts are necessary this school year, they are done so in a “progressive, wealth-adjusted” manner that accounts for school district needs.
The Regents proposal eyes changes to funding meant to incentivize schools districts to merge or consider other reorganizations to save money. The proposal would peg those incentives to inflation, so they increase over time; the current incentives have not been increased in over a decade.
“We are seeing interest in reorganization among school districts that are stressed,” said Christina Coughlin, an assistant education commissioner. “There is a state incentive but the funding for that has not been increased in over a decade.”
The plan includes changes to give districts more flexibility to spend money from dedicated reserve accounts, loosening rules and timelines for paying back those reserve funds, while enabling districts to hold a larger amount of money as a general fund balance, effectively a “cash account,” state officials said.
Regent Roger Tilles, of Long Island, noted that the Regents proposal is effectively a restoration to previous funding and expressed concerns that without some special relief fund the state’s neediest districts would likely be harmed by any additional funding cut in the current year.
“Although we are asking for basically no increase, the costs to school districts over the course of this year, the COVID costs alone… I can only assume for (all districts in) the state that cost is huge,” Tilles said. “We are really asking for almost a decrease in our budgets, but that is all we can do.”
Other members of the board, though, said their proposal was an acknowledgment of the state’s fiscal crisis.
“We were constrained and exercised mindfulness in light of the fiscal realities and constraints our state is facing,” Regents Vice Chancellor Andrew Brown said during Monday’s meeting.
More from The Daily Gazette: