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It's March and there's a pandemic. So what's going on with school budgets?

It's March, and normally school superintendents would be figuring out how to lower taxes in next year's budget, as well as checking the prospects for state aid.

Instead, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, they are making sure they are getting school lunches delivered to their students and figuring out how to keep in touch with children who are home – not to mention providing daycare for the children of health care workers.

"This year they're not as focused on the budget, they're focused on what’s going to happen tomorrow," said Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, a member of the Assembly's Education Committee. "Will the school year be a loss or will we be able to recover it?"

At this point, no one knows, but the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown the school budget process and school board elections up in the air.

School leaders are finding it difficult to plan for the return to normalcy, because they don't know when that will be, what the new normal will look like or what long term effects the crisis could have on schools.

"The whole state aid picture is murky," said Orleans/Niagara BOCES Superintendent Clark Godshall. "It’s a balancing game in terms of what is going on."

Godshall predicts movement on local budget matters once the state aid figures are in.

The governor in January proposed changes in the aid formula. But that was before the pandemic began consuming state dollars.

"We have no clue about where those are going to wind up," said Richard Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium.

Districts rely on Albany to fund a good portion of their budgets, but the pandemic has helped blow a multi-billion hole in the state budget. That budget is due April 1, and after it is adopted, some of the local budget questions should be answered.

And if they aren't the answers schools are looking for, there is some hope the federal government will come through.

Buffalo Superintendent Kriner Cash is urging supporters to contact state and federal legislators to insist on an "immediate, substantial, and direct infusion of federal aid of tens of billions of dollars" for school districts.

"If in fact we’re light on our education budget, we could be in a position of waiting for the federal government to get together to figure out how they're going to bail out the states," Ryan said.

It's too early to tell how any federal aid would be allocated, but many districts at this point are designing budgets on the assumption there will be some sort of funding. They're also contemplating a Plan B.

Depew school district leaders want to add a kindergarten teacher, school psychologist and teaching assistants next school year. They had already closed the gap between proposed spending and revenues, and scheduled the budget hearing for May 12. But then they went into crisis mode.

Are they worried about how much aid New York State will be able to send to schools?

"Always," said Depew Superintendent Jeffrey R. Rabey, and he added, "We’ll identify a couple of contingency plans."

Schools and parents remember the aftermath of the Great Recession: cuts in teachers and staff, more study halls and fewer courses and sports teams, particularly after the tax cap went into effect. New York State also instituted the "gap elimination adjustment" that reduced state aid to schools to close the state's budget deficit.

Lewiston Porter Superintendent Paul Casseri said he is building the district's budget based on the governor's proposal in January, which included less than a 2% increase in aid to his district.

"I have no idea whether they're going to have an on-time budget or not," he said.

Districts have operated under the tax cap since 2011. It limits the increase in the tax levy without the approval of 60% of voters. If state aid is slim, and federal aid not adequate, some are wondering if there could be temporary changes to the tax cap.

While schools had no way of knowing the pandemic was coming, some districts did build a safety net, according to Hamburg Superintendent Michael Cornell.

"Experience tells us that every few years, there's a couple of tough years," he said.

"We've been realistic about what the budget's going to look like," he said. "It's going to look a little worse. We're just going to have to adapt."

Cornell expressed some hope that schools will get enough money from the state.

"I think the Legislature and the governor understand that education is a priority," he said. "We'll be funded in a way that largely allows us to keep doing what we're doing."

State law requires a public vote on most school budgets and school board candidates May 19. Will the vote take place then, and if it does, what will it look like?

"Most of the districts are working through their budgets, and they’re just trying to figure out how to have the required public vote right now," Godshall said.

How New York handles the April 28 primary might offer some guidance, if absentee ballots were required, or in-person voting was changed to reduce the numbers at the poll at any one time.

Moving the date of the election is problematic, because the new school budget year begins July 1. But the New York State School Boards Association said it is working with state officials to change the date or find another alternative for safe elections.

"If we had to do an all-absentee ballot election, that would be difficult but we could make it happen," Cornell said. "Passing a budget is important. Keeping people safe is more important."

The economic effects could be a long time coming for school districts. They found that out 18 months to two years after the last fiscal crisis, when payments into the pension system had skyrocketed because of the drop in the stock market.

State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli said earlier this month that the pension system is "well-funded" and benefits to retirees will continue to be paid. The state takes a conservative approach to investment, he said, while acknowledging the pension fund faces challenges.

Legislation signed last year by the governor allows districts to create a reserve fund for payments into the Teachers Retirement System. That means districts can set aside funds now to put toward future increases in pension payments.

Such issues keep coming for schools with the pandemic crisis.

"Throw the rock in the pond, and the ripples keep going," Ryan said.

News Staff Reporter Jay Rey contributed to this report.

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