Recently, the word “apocalypse” was uttered by the superintendent of the Brighton Central School District when talking about the budget-making challenges facing New York State school districts.
Kevin McGowan, who is also the president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, says districts are facing a double whammy: Not only were state budget allocations essentially flat, the funding districts received from the state is subject to quarterly adjustments, depending on revenues.
“Most districts are facing the reality that they will have to make cuts,” McGowan said.
And those cuts will likely come sooner rather than later.
“Restoring programs mid-year is a whole lot better than cutting mid-year,” he explained. “If you tell kids on a Friday that they’ll be in a different classroom on Monday, that’s not good planning.”
McGowan is urging districts “to make reductions at the outset."
A cursory glance at Brighton’s books could lull you into thinking it’s doing well. And compared to some very stressed districts, like the Rochester City School District, it is: Brighton is located in the suburbs and produces some top academic numbers.
But 18% of its students qualify for Free & Reduced Lunch (Ferpl), plus McGowan says, the district is still owed $8 million in Foundation Aid. And the district’s last attempt to break the tax cap failed.
So where will the district choose to cut? McGowan says the “extras” will have to go.
For example, the district had been offering instrumental music beginning in fourth grade when most other districts start in fifth grade, and foreign language in sixth grade, when most other districts don’t start until seventh grade.
Things are going to be tougher for lower wealth districts.
“Brighton is the exact opposite of Watervliet,” says Watervliet City School District Superintendent Lori Caplan.
“For me? I’m 70% dependent on state aid,” she said. “I literally can’t put a bow on my budget until the end of April when we see if the governor can do his first take-back.”
Caplan is referring to the governor’s new power to cut revenues mid-year.
Watervliet is a high-needs school district in Albany County with 1350 students. Every student in the district is eligible for free & reduced lunch.
“Cuts? Everything is on the table,” says Caplan. “I will remain true to the district’s mission of ensuring that students receive the best education possible while being fiscally responsible to my taxpayers, and not letting zip codes determine the quality of their experience here.”
At the same time, she telegraphs the very real possibility of staff cuts.
“I don’t want to falsely alarm my staff, and I don’t want to give them false hope,” says Caplan. “And the bigger concern will be the 2021-22 school year.”
This year, aid to schools was essentially flat only because of stimulus funding from the federal government. Without it, the state would have had to cut school aid.
As of now, there is no federal stimulus funding for schools for 2021-22.
Superintendent Kaplan tells Spectrum News the first place she will cut is academic intervention services which are offered when students don’t pass the Regents tests.
“The Regents were waived this year, so we don’t need IAS this year. The question is, how do I redeploy those people in a more efficient manner, or do we not need them,” Caplan said.
Ithaca City Schools is a diverse district of about 6000 students, according to Superintendent Luvelle Brown. The district is still “owed” about $1 million in foundation aid.
“Not knowing your fiscal reality is very challenging,” he says. “It’s forcing us to plan for a worst-case scenario.”
Like McGowan, Brown says he rather make cuts early than wait until mid-year.
The first things to go?
“Operational, administrative and professional development for teachers,” Brown says. “Instructional coaches, professional development programs – that’s going to take a hit.”
The Ossining Union Free School District is one of the so-called “Harmed Suburban Five,” a group which also includes Port Chester, Glen Cove, Riverhead, and Westbury. Ossining Superintendent Ray Sanchez says that for years prior to the pandemic, Ossining was being short-changed by the school budget formula.
“Right now, what we’re seeing is a $4.9 million gap in our $137 million budget. Part of it is operating aid. We have high needs, more poverty,” Sanchez explains. “In a 10-year span, we have gone from 34% FERPL (Free & Reduced Lunch) to about 64%, and we have had about a 1,000-student increase in that same time frame.”
Superintendent Sanchez sees the problem as twofold. He needs to address the shortfall due to the economic shutdown as well as new student needs due to the pandemic.
“As tight as our budgets are we are going to have to adapt to the needs of children,” he explained. “We are going to need the space within our budgets to adapt to their needs."
It’s easier said than done, especially when you’re facing a 2% property tax cap – a cap that Brighton Superintendent Kevin McGowan has called “vindictive” due to its link to refund checks.