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School districts brace for potentially tough budget cuts in COVID-19 fallout

School districts brace for potentially tough budget cuts in COVID-19 fallout

More uncertainty than usual this year as April 1 deadline looms for lawmakers
School districts brace for potentially tough budget cuts in COVID-19 fallout
Photographer: Shutterstock

While no one knows what kind of budget cuts school districts may have to absorb in the coming year, the math doesn’t look promising.

With state officials projecting budget deficits as high as $15 billion in the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, lawmakers are rushing this week to finalize a state budget by the April 1 deadline.

But many of the traditional tea leaves used by policy watchers looking to prepare for what’s to come in the annual state budget have been thrown out the window in the midst of a public health crisis, creating a new level of uncertainty about what impact the budget numbers will have for local schools.

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“It’s a lot of conjecture at this point, but we are bracing ourselves for potential cuts, which could be devastating,” said Michael Borges, executive director of the state Association of School Business Officials. “We are hopeful that the impact on schools are minimized given the mission we have.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo in recent days has suggested that school districts should prepare for funding cuts, noting that a significant chunk of state funding is devoted to education. The state spends about $28 billion on education, about 30 percent of the overall state budget.

“The simple arithmetic is alarming,” Bob Lowry of the New York State Council of School Superintendents said Monday, referring to the state’s looming deficit.

Both Borges and Lowry said there is more uncertainty around what the final state aid numbers will look like this year than is typical for the annual budget process. Plus, Cuomo has suggested he will seek authority to revisit the state budget on a quarterly basis, instituting more cuts if the state’s fiscal picture continues to deteriorate. That kind of policy would create yet more uncertainty for districts looking to plan their own budgets for next school year.

“From a school district budgeting standpoint, it will play havoc with the education system,” Borges said of the prospect of rolling budget cuts that hit districts throughout the year. “I don’t know how we budget for the school year without knowing what the number is going to be.”

Education advocates have worked to organize remote lobbying efforts to defend education funding as a priority. Those same advocates have long been critical of Cuomo when it comes to education funding and argue schools would have been more prepared to handle the chaos wrought by the pandemic if funding school funding levels were already higher.

“A state budget that cuts funding to schools would devastate educational opportunities for New York’s two million children,” the Alliance for Quality Education, a group that advocates for increased state education funding, argued in an analysis it distributed over the weekend. “This would mean more overcrowded classrooms, fewer resources to invest in technology upgrades and the loss of valuable support staff like guidance counselors, school psychologists and social workers.”

The group argued any education cuts would hurt the neediest schools most.

“State education cuts would impact high needs students the most in any given year; any divestment from education would leave our most vulnerable even further behind,” the group argued in its memo.

Local lawmakers on Monday said they plan to fight to prioritize education funding and suggested they would oppose granting the governor the unilateral ability to impose mid-year budget cuts.

“Even with the large coronavirus-driven deficit, the governor must prioritize education aid in the state budget,” Assembly Member Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, said Monday. “It’s simply the wrong thing to do to pull back on all the investments we’ve made in public education over the years.”

Assembly Member Phil Steck, D-Colonie, said he would stridently oppose any effort to give the governor special powers to make additional cuts throughout the budget year with little to no legislative oversight.

“To turn that over to him now because of the pandemic doesn’t seem very sensible to me, and I don’t think it’s keeping with what my constituents want,” Steck said.

It’s also unclear when – or even whether – school districts will be expected to hold annual budget votes. In a new executive order signed this week, Cuomo moved the budget votes until June 1 at the earliest and advised that more changes could be on their way.

Borges said his organization has recommended state officials grant school districts the ability to bypass public votes and rely on school board approval if their budgets don’t exceed the local tax caps. But there has been no guidance beyond the delay of the annual budget votes to at least June 1.

Rethink budgets?

Even in the face of an unclear state budget, some local districts have already moved forward with preparing budgets, and at least one school board has already adopted its annual budget proposal.

With state numbers still to be released and a postponement of the actual budget vote, though, education policy analysts suggest districts should take their time with their budgets over the coming days and weeks.

“It would be prudent for school districts to wait to develop their budget until they know what their numbers are,” Borges said, pointing out that districts now have more time to develop those budgets than they have in previous years.

Mohonasen school district officials last week presented the school board a budget proposal that would use a retirement incentive to lower staff costs, savings that would mostly accrue over the coming budget years. But district officials said they are ready to reevaluate the proposal if numbers from the state change in the coming days.

“We are acutely aware of the state’s financial challenges, yet they still seem to be in flux as well,” Mohonasen Superintendent Shannon Shine said by email Monday, listing a litany of still outstanding questions. “We have lots of unknowns, so for now, our planned budget remains our proposed budget for 20-21 (school year), subject to change depending upon what we find out from the state going forward.”

The Scotia-Glenville school board last week adopted its budget for next school year. The budget proposal would come with a 2.66 percent tax levy increase, just below the district’s tax cap, and cut 1.5 positions in the budget through attrition.

Board President David Bucciferro said if the district’s financial situation changes after the state finalizes its budget, the board can revisit the budget at that time. He also noted that it was valuable to give busy district officials the space to focus on issues other than the budget.

“It doesn’t lock us in; we can reopen it,” he said. “This way it’s off our plate, so we can turn our attention to some other areas that need to be done.”

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