If you take a fleeting glance at the proposed state education budget released this week, you might think that, while drafting it, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s mind was being controlled by Senator Robert Jackson or another fierce advocate for education funding.
‘A 7 percent increase in education funding, adding up to $2.1 billion! Whoah. That’s practically Eliot Spitzer money,’ you might think if you’re a wonk of a certain age.
But as your eyes adjust to the small font of the executive budget proposal, you realize that the state portion of the education budget is actually cut by $607 million. And that the balance of funding is back-filled by federal relief money passed by Congress in December.
And that’s just the beginning.
The state was allocated $3.8 billion by Washington which, by federal law, school districts were to be able to spend over a three-year period. What the governor did was siphon off about $1.4 billion for other costs, and squeeze the remaining $2.4 billion into this year’s education budget.
It’s not optimal, according to Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.
“We have had all these pandemic related costs,” he told Capital Tonight. “We’ve got expenses that we have to pay this year that may not be recurring. But conversely, we can’t expect that we’ll get a 7 percent increase the following year. So, it’s risky.”
Interim State Education Commissioner Betty Rosa doesn’t like the idea either, and neither does the Board of Regents. Together they issued a statement on Wednesday saying they are opposed to using federal funds to fill state budget holes.
“We see it as a net decrease. In this climate, that is not encouraging,” Rosa told Capital Tonight.
Instead, she said the federal money should be used for pandemic-related costs.
“I think that we know that the federal dollars, these are one-shot funding conditions, right? They are not recurring revenue. So, we want these to be used for the purpose that the funds were intended. These are one-shot funds intended to help our schools, our districts, to address pandemic costs. So, let’s use those dollars specifically for that," Rosa said.
The top line budget numbers are not the only element of the proposed spending plan that Rosa and other education advocates are concerned about.
Once again, the governor is proposing to take eleven aid lines, including large expense-based aid like transportation and BOCES, and consolidate them into a single line.
And this year, there’s a special twist that could make such a change even more painful for districts.
“This budget cuts aid and it takes effect right away,” according to NYSCOSS’ Bob Lowry. “Also, there would be no way for districts to forecast future aid. Under the current rules, you know what you have spent and know that your reimbursement rate is 60 percent as an example, so you know you’ll get 60 percent back in state aid next year. This budget doesn’t provide any ability to predict.”
Interim Commissioner Betty Rosa had the same concern.
“Looking at transportation, if I’m expecting 90 percent reimbursement then if, in fact, last year I spent a million dollars, and this year it’s going to cost me a million two, those dollars are going to have to come from someplace,” Rosa explained.
Bob Schneider, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, calls this consolidation a “block grant."
“When you take these 11 state aid categories put them into a block grant, we’re not certain that we’re going to get that money back for that exact expense. It’s not really predictable,” Schneider told Capital Tonight. “We’re not really certain where the governor is going with these state aid block grants.”
This year’s Foundation Aid is steady at 2019 levels, which is $18.4 billion. Legislative budget hearings on education will take place on Thursday, January 28.