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State education boss predicts tough school budget years ahead

State education boss predicts tough school budget years ahead

Leaders need to be cautious in contract negotiations, she says
State education boss predicts tough school budget years ahead
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia talks Wednesday to The Daily Gazette editorial board.
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ

Multiple years of tight school budgets are ahead for New York, as federal tax and health care changes take hold, according to state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.

“I think we are only going to have more constraints in New York state as the new federal (tax) law plays out,” Elia said during a meeting with The Daily Gazette editorial board Wednesday, just as lawmakers in Washington finalized a massive tax overhaul that New York officials have warned will devastate the state budget.

School district leaders are already preparing for what is shaping up to be a difficult budget this winter and spring, but Elia suggested next year may not be any easier, as the impacts of the tax bill and potential changes to Medicaid are realized in the state’s finances.

“We aren’t even aware of all the things that are going to come in and hit us,” Elia said. “Things that haven’t even been done yet are going to affect New York.”

Communities across the state should be prepared for the difficult trade-offs schools boards will face as they sort out their budgets, challenges closer to what was felt in the years after the Great Recession than the atmosphere of opportunity that prompted some districts to expand programs last year.

“It is a tight environment, and we all have to be aware of that,” Elia said.

Specifically, she said district leaders need to be mindful of the budget constraints as they sign new contracts and hash out agreements with teachers and other bargaining groups.

“They have to be very careful to make sure that they are the tightest that they can be within the context of supporting students,” she said.

The Board of Regents’ $1.6 billion state aid request for the coming year was already tempered in the face of the state’s looming budget gap. But that level of funding would still allow districts to make some progress in serving the neediest districts, Elia said.

The Regents called for a $1.25 billion increase in foundation aid, the state’s core education funding formula, to accommodate a 3 percent spending increase on the neediest school districts.

Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring on Tuesday said he was preparing for a tighter budget season than last year, but that it was still too early to know whether the district would be able to maintain the same level of programs and services offered under the current year’s budget.

“A 3 percent increase in spending, I’m not sure that would quite get us to be able to do everything we are doing this year again, but it would be close,” Spring said, highlighting a summer program the district piloted this year as one that would be costly to fold into the district’s general fund. (The summer program was supported by leftover grant dollars that won’t be available to the district next year.)

In the wide-ranging discussion, Elia also touched on efforts to expand prekindergarten to more 4-year-olds. She also highlighted greater public outreach this spring as officials considered changes to the state’s teacher evaluation system and spoke about efforts to promote greater diversity within and between districts.

Working toward true ‘universal’ pre-K

Elia highlighted a $37 million request from the Regents to expand pre-K classes to another 2,000 4-year-olds and set the stage for a multi-year buildup to true universal pre-K for the state’s youngest students.

State education officials estimate it would cost about $200 million over what is already spent to expand full-day pre-K to all 4-year-olds in the state. About $80 million of that would cover the state’s high-needs students.

“Our focus should be on 4-year-olds, and it should be, first of all, on those who need it the most, and then it should be a universal (program),” Elia said.

When the state officials presented the initial $37 million recommendation, they earmarked $20 million for adding classroom spots for pre-K students. The other $17 million would be used to establish early childhood technical centers, a process for screening students and other facets of expanded early childhood education.

But Elia said she thinks that kind of phase-in would take too long, citing widespread agreement over the importance of offering early learning experiences to 4-year-old children.

“I think 10 years is insane,” Elia said of taking a ramp-up approach.

The state is also working to consolidate seven pre-K grants into a single program and shift to an allocation method that emphasizes need rather than doling out competitive grants.

Budget makers, however, have not moved as quickly as Elia and the Regents have proposed, and last year, Elia shot down a proposal from the governor to begin offering pre-K slots to 3-year-olds. Also last year, the Education Department requested $100 million to expand pre-K classes; lawmakers allocated $5 million.

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