State aid to school districts for 2020-21 year is now projected to be frozen at this year's levels.
And that's thanks to the availability of $1.2 billion in federal stimulus money as lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo look to approve a state budget Thursday.
But even if aid turns out flat in the short term, the situation could change in the coming months.
There is still the specter of mid-year cuts to school aid could if the state economy remains paralyzed by the coronavirus pandemic.
The state budget deal reached Wednesday has a provision for automatic reductions in state spending, including school aid, at points during the upcoming fiscal year, controlled by Cuomo.
Districts are now trying to create budgets for their fiscal year that starts July 1. Having learned Wednesday of their still-uncertain aid amounts, most will be searching for cuts to make in staffing and programs.
Schools look to figure out state aid amid uncertainty
It makes for a difficult budget season for schools. Already the public vote on their budgets have been pushed back from May 19 until after June 1.
"It’s going to be a long and perilous financial school year," said Rick Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, which represents 431 districts seeking reform of the state aid process.
But things could have been much worse, said state Sen. Shelley Mayer, D-Yonkers, chair of the Senate Education Committee. She said budget talks included discussions about deep cuts in education aid.
"We fought to make sure that no one had a cut," Mayer said. "There were about to be cuts because the state has no money. We tried to find a way to make sure that districts did not go below this year's number."
Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office and legislative leaders avoided cuts in school aid largely by working in almost $1.2 billion in federal stimulus funding aimed at New York's K-12 schools
Districts that qualified for extra aid from the stimulus bill lost an equal amount of state aid, essentially breaking even. Then the state used the savings to help prevent aid cuts to districts statewide.
The state's calculations referred to the state aid lost by districts receiving federal aid as a "pandemic adjustment."
How much will school districts get?
How much federal aid districts are getting is tied to their eligibility for federal Title I funds, which are determined by each district's poverty level.
The Mount Vernon school district, for instance, where 78% of students are classified as economically disadvantaged, is due to receive $3.1 million from the federal CARES Act.
But the district is losing $3.1 million as its pandemic adjustment. The district's "foundation aid," the main form of state aid to schools, is frozen at just under $76 million.
"Given the grim condition of state finances, the budget for education exceeds our expectations," said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the state Council of School Superintendents.
"Still, the freeze on foundation aid will fall hardest on poor, heavily state aid dependent school districts.
State aid figures from the state Division of Budget were posted by the New York Association of School Business Officials.
New York schools are closed through April 15, though districts are conducting online learning.
Education cuts loom in New York
The creation of a pandemic adjustment will remind many of a measure taken by the state in 2010-11 to help close a $10 billion state budget gap.
The state instituted the "gap elimination adjustment," which was a cut to each school district's annual allotment of education aid. The measure was not eliminated until the 2016-17 state budget, after costing districts about $10 billion in aid.
School districts must now craft budgets for 2020-21 that include less state aid than they expected only a few months ago, before the pandemic hit.
Cuomo's January budget proposal included a 3% overall increase in education aid, or about or by about $826 million to $28.5 billion, by far the most per capita in the nation.
But aid may fall further. The budget gives Cuomo the authority to make quarterly cuts to spending on schools and programs because of the state's weak economy due to coronavirus shutdowns.
"The possibility of mid-year reductions in aid is worrisome," Lowry said.
"Every school superintendent we have heard from would favor starting with realistic aid estimates, even if low, rather than face having to make mid-year cuts to school budgets. No one wants to contemplate laying off teachers and reconfiguring classes part way through the school year if state aid comes up short."
As recently as early this year, a big push was underway for the state to increase education funding as a way close the equity gap between affluent and poorer districts.
Mayer and other Senate leaders led a review of the foundation aid formula, concluding that the state needed to spend much more money on education and eventually revise the formula.
"It’s a crisis, it’s a disaster," Mayer said.
"It has nothing to do with schools or anything we fought for on school aid. Schools, like everyone else, are doing their best to chip in. Now it’s about making sure the state takes the lead to deal with this crisis and minimize the pain for school districts. I feel that we were able to work towards that goal."