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In Covid-19 climate, schools tread water on aid – so far

Considering New York State's very shaky finances, the amount of funding being allocated for public schools next year could be treated as a win by superintendents – if some of the money is not taken back at mid-year.

State lawmakers and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo held the line on school aid for next year's budget, agreeing to a slight increase of $96 million, less than a half a percent, and less than some figures released originally.

But the more than 700 school districts around the state are still holding their collective breath, because the deal allows the Cuomo administration to make further cuts in the coming months should revenue projections fall short due to the toll that Covid-19 has taken on the economy.

"The possibility of mid-year reductions in aid is worrisome," said Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

"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," Lowry said. "No one wants to contemplate laying off teachers and reconfiguring classes part way through the school year if state aid comes up short."

State aid for school districts was basically handled the same way as it was after the financial collapse in 2009, Lowry explained.

Foundation aid, which funds basic operating expenses, was frozen, as were the formulas for other school funding, like building aid. Meanwhile, districts were given a portion of the $1.2 billion in federal emergency aid for schools – then saw funding from the state axed in the same amount.

Despite the possibility of further cuts, the budget passed Wednesday for education exceeded expectations given the grim condition of state finances, Lowry said.

Still, poor districts that are heavily dependent on state aid will be hardest hit. That includes Buffalo, where state aid for next year will remain flat.

"Given the state’s budget situation, we’ll need to chase federal funding, which is not a good situation for us to be in," said Geoffrey Pritchard, chief financial officer for the Buffalo Public Schools.

"We are still reviewing the state budget legislation, and there will certainly be more details in the coming days, including how the governor may revisit aid to schools during the year," Pritchard said. "I don’t know if that means the aid on the aid run could go even lower."

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In fact, to get a better handle on what cuts might look like, the Council of School Superintendents recommended that districts whose spending plans must be voted on wait until at least April 30 before adopting a budget to submit to voters. That's the end of the first measurement period where the Cuomo administration looks at revenues to determine if the budget is balanced.

The governor this week delayed voting on school budgets and school board candidates until at least June 1.

“We anticipated that this might be coming down,” said Michelle Bradley, superintendent of the Lockport City School District. “When we did get the numbers it was almost the best we could hope for given the circumstances we’re dealing with now with Covid-19."

But the new reality already has forced Lockport to make adjustments  in next year's budget. That includes not filling as many as many as 11 positions created by  vacancies and retirements.

In Lake Shore, the school district will see state aid go down a little more than 1 percent next year.

"It could always be worse," said Lake Shore Superintendent Charles Galluzzo. "There are so many unknowns and things are changing all the time. Who knows if there is going to be more help from the federal government for schools. I'm kind of hoping there will be."

Like the rest of life, the budget situation for schools has changed dramatically from just three months ago when advocates were fighting for twice as much as the $1 billion increase that was being proposed by the governor.

Now, schools are just trying to hang on to what they've got, and hoping they don't lose too much.

"Considering that 70 to 75% of school district expenses are tied up in staff, I think people are going to start taking a look at programs, staff, services, offerings, and figure out ways to economize, whether it's through attrition, retirements, or potential reduction in force," said Richard Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium.

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