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State aid for NY schools remains a mystery until Biden and Congress act

Gary Stern
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

After 10 months of absorbing pandemic-related costs, New York's school districts will likely have to start crafting new budgets knowing that their future state aid will depend on a massive federal bailout.

Under Gov. Andrew Cuomo's tenuous executive budget for fiscal year 2022, released Tuesday, the state would increase school aid by $2.1 billion, a 7.1% increase that might appear healthy on the surface.

But this spending plan incorporates about $4 billion in federal aid for New York's K-12 schools that Congress passed last month. And it anticipates another $6 billion in general aid that Cuomo hopes Washington will direct to New York after the Biden administration gets settled in.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers his State of the State address virtually from The War Room at the state Capitol, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, in Albany, N.Y.

On top of that, Cuomo is demanding that Washington actually increase that $6 billion to $15 billion — and says that aid to schools for 2021-22 could ultimately be cut by $2 billion if Biden disappoints.

"We need results and we need them quickly," Cuomo said Tuesday, as he released a spending plan that had far fewer specifics for schools than normal.

Cuomo threatened to sue the Biden administration if the full $15 billion in aid doesn't come, insisting that the total is "what's fair" for New York given the state's anticipated $39 billion revenue shortfall over four years.

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Such uncertainty has quickly become the norm for New York's nearly 700 school districts, many of which rely on state aid to supplement local property taxes so they can cover the costs of staff and programs. In general, needier districts in urban and rural areas fund a larger portion of their budget with state aid and suffer more when aid is stifled.

The current state budget, passed shortly after the pandemic hit, froze aid to school districts at last year's levels. Cuomo and legislative leaders avoided cuts in aid by using $1.1 billion from the federal CARES Act to supplement state aid.

Cuomo has threatened to cut aid payments at various points during the year. But the only cuts so far came over the summer in only a few areas.  

Since March, school districts have absorbed numerous costs related to the pandemic, including for PPE, laptops and other technology, updates to school facilities to improve ventilation, and June's all-by-mail elections. 

Many have been watching to see how Cuomo would use over $4 billion in last month's federal stimulus package that was aimed at K-12 schools in New York. It was used in Cuomo's spending plan to offset a $607 million decrease in state support for schools and produce the overall $2.1 billion hike in education funding. 

School districts will also have limited ability to raise their own main source of revenues: property taxes. The statewide cap on property tax levy increases for 2021-22 was set last week at 1.23%. 

The Lower Hudson Education Coalition, made up of school boards and superintendents in Westchester, Rockland, Putnam and Dutchess counties, is calling on the state to increase the cap to 2%, saying the lower cap won't provide enough revenue to cover expenses related to COVID-19.

With state budget details so shaky, education groups in New York hardly knew what to make Tuesday of Cuomo's spending plan. Bob Lowry of the New York State Council of School Superintendents tweeted that Cuomo's plan "gives no clarity for school district leaders planning their local budgets." 

Rick Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, which advocates for educational equity, lamented that Cuomo's budget plan did not offer districts the details they need about the different types of state aid. "They really don’t look like they’re ready to discuss those details. Ugh!" he tweeted.

Jasmine Gripper, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, which fights for equitable school funding, blasted Cuomo for playing chicken with Washington instead of prioritizing the funding of schools. "The state should tax the ultra wealthy to close the budget gap in order to maintain state support for our schools, instead of reducing its own responsibility," she said in a statement.

NYSUT President Andy Pallotta agreed that the state needs new taxes on the "ultraweathy" in addition to federal funds.

"As a state, we can’t afford to view cuts of any kind to public schools and colleges, public health care, and other public services funded by state and local governments as a default option," he said in a statement.

State spending on education, at about $29 billion, represents about 29% of the state budget when excluding federal funds.

As of now, annual school budget votes and school board elections are scheduled for May 18. Last spring, Cuomo directed that school voting would be all by mail.