State aid on the rise across North Fork, but districts say it isn’t enough

All North Fork school districts are expected to receive more state funding this academic year than last, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s state aid proposal for New York. 

The governor’s budget office last week released the proposed state-aid figures for New York State, which showed that Suffolk County public schools will receive $1.95 billion in aid this year. However, some school officials on the North Fork believe the increase is not substantial.

State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli announced this month that increases in the property tax levy for school districts will be capped at 1.81% for the 2020-21 fiscal year — down from the 2% cap in the last two years.

As a result, he said in a Jan. 14 press release, school districts need to be “fiscally cautious” and “examine where they can limit spending to stay under the cap. Local governments will have to examine their budgets more closely to control expenses.”

The tax increase cap, which first applied to local governments and school districts in 2012, limits annual tax levy increases to the lesser of the rate of inflation or 2% — with certain exceptions, including a provision that allows school districts to override the cap with 60% voter approval of their budget.

Due to its size, the New Suffolk school district was not included on the proposed funding list and receives state aid through a different funding formula.

Here’s a breakdown of the aid proposed each district in Southold Town:

The Mattituck-Cutchogue Union Free School District will receive $2.9 million in aid, an increase of 2.27%, or about $63,000, from last year.

Superintendent Jill Gierasch said Monday that only about 8% of the district budget is funded by state aid and the increase overall is not “substantial.” Ms. Gierasch added that all sources of revenue are prioritized to support the most beneficial expenditures for students and educational programs, including new clubs, high school classes, professional development and equipment. The district is expected to look for additional revenue sources, like grant funding, where possible.

Meanwhile, district officials are in the final stages of developing the proposed budget, which will be presented at the Thursday, Feb. 13, school board meeting.

“All of our budget managers have had an opportunity to make suggestions for improvements as well as determine areas where we can be fiscally more cautious. Our goal is to continue to provide an exceptional program for students while being mindful of the tax levy and community,” Ms. Gierasch said.

Neighboring district Southold will receive $1.9 million in state aid for the 2020-21 academic year — a 1.4% increase from last year, while Greenport will receive $1.6 million in aid, roughly 5.11% more than last year’s $1.5 million.

Southold-Greenport Superintendent David Gamberg said Monday that additional aid will be used in both districts to lower the tax levy and maintain programs.

Every district in the state receives Foundation Aid, the “largest unrestricted aid category supporting public school district expenditures in New York State” according to the New York State Education Department 2019-20 handbook. How the districts will spend those funds has yet to be determined, Mr. Gamberg said, but Greenport may use its aid in areas such as academics, mental health, after-school programming, English Language Learners or other services to students and their families.

“For Greenport, we are very happy with the increase and are currently planning how to best use the funds,” he said.

Typically, Mr. Gamberg said, the governor’s budget proposal is a starting point and the amounts may increase.

“We are hopeful that the Legislature can adjust these amounts upward to some degree,” he said.

Oysterponds Union Free School District will receive $414,726 in state aid this year — a 3.19% increase.

Superintendent Richard Malone was not available for comment Monday or Tuesday.

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