Interim state Education Commissioner Betty Rosa on Thursday urged lawmakers to fight back against Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to use billions of dollars in federal aid to offset state school funding.
Rosa said the federal money should instead be used to cover the extraordinary pandemic-related costs districts have incurred since the spring and bolster schools’ efforts to overcome the expected learning loss students will face coming out of the pandemic as a result of limited in-person instruction and new academic stressors.
She called Cuomo’s proposed approach a “mega-concern” for state education officials, arguing the plan could set up multiple years of budget shortfalls for districts across the state.
Pointing to proposed reductions in STAR payments to districts and a consolidation of and major funding cut to 11 different reimbursement-based school aid categories, including transportation and BOCES, Rosa said the governor’s proposed budget relied on one-time federal aid to offset permanent cuts in state support.
“This one-shot federal finding should be used to help districts meet the enormous additional cost of the pandemic and address learning loss and other adverse consequences rather than as day-to-day funding,” Rosa told lawmakers during testimony at a joint legislative budget hearing Thursday. “Those dollars were added on for a very specific purpose, they were never intended to supplant, they were never intended to be used in any way other than to add on (to state aid).”
Rosa also continued to signal the education department’s not-yet-explicit position on state tests this spring. She pointed to the state’s recent waiver request to bypass federally-mandated tests for students in elementary, middle and high schools and said the Board of Regents would make a final decision about the Regents exam graduation requirements. She also highlighted the inherent challenges of administering a test in the current environment and when some students have been learning remotely while others have received in-person instruction.
“The testing will be very challenging and difficult for both 3-8 (math and ELA tests), and the Regents exams as well,” Rosa said during the hearing.
Lawmakers from both parties largely echoed the concerns about Cuomo’s budget proposal, particularly the STAR cuts and aid consolidation, and probed Rosa and other people who testified about scores of other specifics in Cuomo’s budget.
“Not to mince words, but I believe this budget is a disaster,” said Assemblymember Kenneth Zebrowski, a Rockland County Democrat.
Sen. James Tedisco, R-Glenville, said he wanted to see school districts granted more flexibility to manage their way through the financial and academic challenges presented by the pandemic.
“We need more autonomy for school boards, more autonomy for administrators,” Tedisco said.
Later in the day, other speakers who testified emphasized the “supplement not supplant” argument that the federal aid should not be used to replace state dollars. The superintendents of the so-called “Big Five” school districts, like Rochester and Syracuse, said the financial impacts of state aid shortfalls could be devastating over the coming years.