ALBANY — New York’s public school districts are teetering on a “fiscal cliff” as they face cuts of up to 20 percent in state aid while they incur millions of dollars in new pandemic expenses, according to a statewide survey of public education leaders.
Multi-year reductions in state assistance, a report issued by the state School Boards Association and the Association of School Business Officials, would leave nearly four in 10 school districts insolvent or unable to meet the requirement of providing a sound, basic education to children.
“Public schools stand at the brink of a fiscal cliff,” said Andrew Van Alstyne, director of education and research for the school business officials group. “Federal action is critically needed to prevent significant mid-year cuts that would devastate public education for a generation.”
In Washington, congressional Democrats and the Trump administration have been wrangling over competing proposals on what would be a massive new package of stimulus money that would flow in part to public schools hard hit by the national economic downturn.
Late Thursday, the House passed a $2.2 billion package. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Niagara Falls/Erie County, said it includes $388 million in relief for New York’s schools.
Earlier, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin held negotiations, but no agreement emerged from those talks.
The Cuomo administration, meanwhile, has signaled its strong support for $59 billion in federal bailout money for New York. But if new funding does not come from the federal government, the governor is expected to authorize the withholding of additional state assistance for school districts.
Niagara Falls City School District Superintendent Mark Laurrie said an across-the-board cut for public schools in New York would be “the worst thing that could happen” for struggling districts that heavily rely on state aid.
“I get more concerned each day because the longer you go into a school year, the more you have to cut” when state aid reductions leave districts short of what they had planned to receive, he said.
Laurrie estimated the Niagara Falls district has already had to deal with $2 million in reductions from the state at the same time it has spent an additional $500,000 to help students with their technology needs and purchased an additional $200,000 worth of cleaning supplies and protection equipment to deal with the pandemic.
The district has purchased some 500 MiFi devices to help students connect to the internet from home while also incurring the monthly service charges for those accounts, he said.
Of the 181 New York school districts that responded to the survey, 60 percent signaled they will be forced to cut instructional staff if state school aid continue in the near term.
David Little, director of the Rural Schools Association of New York State, said it remains unclear what specific measures the Cuomo administration will take if there is a breakdown in negotiations between the House and the Senate in Washington over a stimulus package.
“Of course, we need the federal action, but that doesn’t absolve the state from its responsibility to plan for what happens if the feds fail to act,” Little said. “Public education is a constitutional right. My hope is the state, in private is exploring options like borrowing, raising additional revenue or at the very least taking a more nuanced approach to cuts rather than simply making a 20 percent cut of whatever it is you get.”
Had the state government made adjustments in its fiscal course as economic activity slowed earlier this year, the school districts would have been in a better position to plan, said E.J. McMahon, senior fellow at the Empire Center for Public Policy.
He suggested cuts could have been targeted at the wealthiest districts, combined with a statewide freeze on all administrative and teacher pay, including step increases.
“Because this wasn’t done, schools went ahead and planned budgets with few or any adjustments to reflect what was already projected to be a severe fall in revenues,” McMahon added.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org