The cloud of budget uncertainty in Albany is darkening skies over school districts around the state, as district officials work to finalize budgets without knowing how much state aid they will get.
While state lawmakers Monday passed a stopgap measure to fund state operations through May 31, district superintendents and other school officials went to work without the one thing they had hoped to have over the weekend: state aid numbers.
Unlike the Legislature, school districts can’t simply vote away budget deadlines. School boards must adopt final budgets, which then go for public approval, by April 24. Those budgets are then slated to go before taxpayers May 16.
While all districts will have to plow forward with the budget process, some are more at the whim of state lawmakers than others.
“Obviously, we have to be able to go forward regardless, which means planning for a worst case scenario,” said Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring on Monday.
During a Board of Regents meeting Monday, Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said the state Education Department and statewide education groups were pressing lawmakers to take into consideration the concerns of -- and budget schedules of -- school districts.
“We are very concerned specifically because this will affect the scheduling of district budgets that have to be approved,” Elia said. “(Education groups) are being very vocal across the street, as are we, to let them know we think this is going to be a difficult situation.”
Those education groups – like the school boards and superintendents associations – said they recognized the need for lawmakers to pass the budget extension to keep the government open, but they also urged lawmakers to work toward full budget agreement as soon as possible.
For districts already deep into budget planning, the sooner the better.
“We hope they (lawmakers) will also recognize the particular challenges school districts face and work toward a final budget, ideally this week,” said Bob Lowry, spokesman for the New York State Council of School Superintendents. “If (districts) do not have any information about what to anticipate for school aid for the year ahead, they will have to make some choices they might otherwise be able to avoid.”
For some districts, the budget uncertainty doesn’t matter as much. Niskayuna Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. said he plans to move forward with his budget proposal -- presented to the school board last week – which assumes the district will see about $200,000 more in foundation aid under the final budget than under the governor’s proposal.
“My plan is to move forward as originally intended,” Tangorra said, citing assurances from state Sen. James Tedisco, R-Glenville, and Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie, that the district could plan for a bump in funding.
The level of uncertainty is higher for districts that rely on state aid for a larger portion of their revenue.
Schenectady schools have long been planning a budget that put the district in a position to expand programs, particularly new interventions that mirror the special education process for general education students. Spring said as recently as last week that he was optimistic the district would be in a position to afford new spending, and he presented a list of about $5.5 million worth of priority prorgrams to the school board. He said the $5.5 million figure was on the upper limit of what he expected the the district would be able to fund.
That is still possible. But Spring and district staff are working up a budget proposal to take to the school board Wednesday that uses the governor’s proposal as a baseline for what to expect. Under that budget, Spring said, the district is right on the edge of having to cut, versus being able to add new programs.
His first priority, Spring said, is putting up a budget for voter approval that doesn’t raise the tax levy – the amount in local tax dollars the district collects.
If a state budget is agreed to before April 24, the district will have to work through, quickly, how much it room it has to play with and what priorities hold up under those final numbers. Spring said he and other staff are working through the myriad scenarios to be prepared. Since Schenectady relies on tens of millions of dollars in state aid each year, the uncertainty shakes up its process all that much more.
“We have to be prepared for any number of contingencies, which include not just the amount of money that gets added but at what point in time does the budget get agreed to,” Spring said.