Cuomo budget proposal withdraws threat of 20 percent school aid cut

Gov. Andrew Cuomo Tuesday - Governor's Office

Gov. Andrew Cuomo Tuesday - Governor's Office

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday appeared to remove the looming threat of 20-percent reductions in school aid this year as he outlined a plan to rely on federal funding to maintain the state’s school funding levels.

Cuomo and his budget officials said funds withheld earlier this year could be converted into permanent cuts of around 5 percent, but that 20 percent reductions would not be necessary this year, effectively eliminating the worst-case-scenario that Schenectady City School District officials have said drove their decision to lay off over 400 teachers and school staff. District leaders indicated in the past weeks they still believed a 20-percent reduction in aid this year was possible.

“We now expect as a result of the revised revenue picture, instead of 20-percent withholds, we will reduce that to 5 percent of the current year,” state Budget Director Robert Mujica said Tuesday, referring generally to reductions in state aid to local governments, including school districts.

But education policy analysts left the governor’s budget presentation, and Mujica’s follow-on conference call with reporters, with many unanswered questions about how the specifics in the proposal would affect school districts.

“We just don’t know what the details are yet,” Brian Cechnicki, executive director of the state Association of School Business officials said Tuesday after the governor presented his proposal but before more detailed legislative language was released.

The governor’s budget proposal for next school year, which he presented Tuesday, relies on around $4 billion in already-approved federal aid to boost overall school aid in New York by about $2 billion, even as the proposal called for some major state aid reductions.

The governor’s plan, which assumes the state will receive about $6 billion more in federal aid, eliminates various categories of districts expenses that qualify for state reimbursement, saving nearly $400 million during the 2021-2022 school year and establishing a new block grant for districts that covered the previously-reimbursable costs. Education advocacy groups have fought to kill similar proposals in the past.

The proposal includes another state reduction of $1.35 billion in “local district funding adjustments,” but does not specify how the reductions would work. The district reductions would be offset by the federal money.

While the governor’s formal proposal is based on $6 billion in new federal aid, he said the state really needed $15 billion in new federal aid to make up for recent policies Cuomo argued have disproportionately harmed New York. If the state received the full $15 billion, Cuomo and Mujica said, no state reductions in school aid would be necessary.

“If we get the $15 billion [in federal support], we can avoid an education reduction and actually do increases,” Mujica said.

With $3.8 billion of the federal aid approved in December, which states are authorized to spend over three years, earmarked in the 2021-2022 budget, the state’s overall contribution to school aid is reduced about $1.7 billion, under the plan.

The use of the one-time federal aid to cover budget gaps and offset state aid reductions could set up budget difficulties in future years as the federal money disappears and state aid levels start out at a lower baseline.

Bob Lowry, who analyzes state education policy for the state Council of School Superintendents, said it was a positive sign for districts that the governor’s proposal did not offset all of the federal money with state reductions — as he did with around $1.1 billion in federal aid approved last spring. Lowry, who also highlighted the need for more specifics to understand the proposal’s impact on school districts, said the state’s budget challenges will continue to play out over multiple years.

“It’s not the case that we get through one or two bad years and everything is going to return to normal,” Lowry said Tuesday.

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