Due to the COVID-19 crisis, the state can’t fulfill its own budget obligations, so it has to reduce expenditures. One of its biggest expenditure categories is state aid to school districts.
According to education advocates, there’s a way to withhold state school aid and a way not to. Some of them argue that Governor Cuomo administration’s decision to withhold 20 percent of state aid across the board was one way not to.
“Governor Cuomo has chosen to hold state education aid hostage in a political game of chicken with congress, and New York’s students are the ones paying the price. There is no longer a hypothetical: the state’s withholding of school aid is forcing the Rochester City School District, which has one of the highest child poverty rates in the nation, to cut $128 million from its budget,” said Jasmine Gripper, executive director for the Alliance for Quality Education.
For school districts, the 20 percent withholding (which could become a permanent cut) is not the end of the pain.
Additionally, an across the board cut means that districts in the greatest financial need are getting hit the hardest hit.
“School districts are in an impossible situation,” Dr. Rick Timbs told Spectrum News. Timbs is the executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium.
Districts have had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on COVID-19-related expenses that were unbudgeted, things like masks, thermometers and disinfectant.
And Timbs says that’s not the end to the challenges districts are facing.
“Simultaneously, the governor has put a tolling on the statute of limitations on new borrowing, so districts that needed to get the roof fixed or other capital project work that were going to borrow to do the capital project, are hindered because they can’t meet certain notification regulations because the courts are closed.”
In other words, when districts borrow, members of the public can object, but without the courts being open to take new cases, that regulation has gone out the window.
Timbs says districts are facing a spectrum of issues as they face re-opening, either in person or not.
“In some cases, the problem is, they want to open in person, but they can’t because they can’t keep the building clean,” Timbs said. “Or they can’t meet the guidelines in terms of social distancing, because they don’t have enough rooms and staff. Or the busses are a problem. A 67-passenger bus may only be able to hold 20 kids now. So that’s not helpful.”
And the outbreaks at colleges like SUNY Oneonta are not helping.
“We are starting to see these outbreaks on college campuses,” said Timbs. “Remember, all of these college campuses are surrounded by school districts.”