School districts face the future with a very different financial landscape

As school districts continue crafting budgets for the 2020-21 academic year, critical questions about state aid funding remain.

Last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo suspended school budget votes and board elections until after June 1 and school districts across the East End are waiting to take their next steps. All local districts were initially slated to hold their annual votes May 15, and most were unable to adopt budgets before the pandemic hit.

Riverhead was originally on track to adopt its budget at Tuesday’s school board meeting, but board president Greg Meyer said in an interview Monday that budget adoption is now on hold.

“We felt it was premature to do it now, since we don’t know where anything stands,” he said. “It’s all up in the air until June 1; and ‘after June 1,’ for all we know, could mean Nov. 22.”

During Tuesday’s meeting, held via Zoom, Mr. Meyer said pending further information from the state, the board intends to publish a revised budget adoption schedule.

Riverhead had projected a 2020-21 tax levy of $106.9 million to remain under the 2.29% cap. A second proposition was also planned to ask voters to weigh in on spending $469,470 in reserves to fund several district upgrades.

It’s unclear how the budget will change. “We are working on constructing a budget that is mindful of the new economic realities of New York State and new economic hardships of our residents,” Mr. Meyer said during the meeting.

The board also approved a resolution to appoint Patrick Burke to a probationary term as principal at Pulaski Street Elementary. He had been serving as acting principal following the reassignment of former principal Dave Densieski, who intends to retire at the end of this school year. Mr. Burke’s salary will be $154,054.

At a virtual board meeting held last Thursday, the Mattituck-Cutchogue school board adopted a $41.4 million budget, though it’s unclear when the public will get to vote on it. Superintendent Jill Gierasch said they are awaiting further instructions from NYSED and Gov. Cuomo before scheduling a public hearing and vote.

Ms. Gierasch noted that with schools shut down since March 12, and after a mild winter, the district has saved on snow removal and heating costs, athletic expenses associated with the lack of a spring season as well as transportation and cleaning costs outside of CSEA contracts. “There’s quite a bit of savings during this time period,” she said.

Board member Jeffrey Connolly, who gave an update on the district’s audit and finance committee, said the business office is currently reviewing agreements to see what the contractual obligations are.

As a result of the savings, this year’s operating expenses may be lower than originally budgeted for. “We’ll have to see how that shakes out at the end of the year,” Mr. Connolly said.

A huge uncertainty for all districts lies in state aid funding. During a briefing Monday, Gov. Cuomo warned that schools may have to grapple with 20% funding cuts, unless the federal government steps in.

Schools are spared — for now — from drastic cuts in aid thanks to funding through the federal CARES Act, but a provision included in the $177 billion state budget will allow Gov. Cuomo’s administration to make any further cuts deemed necessary throughout the year. 

“We’re fortunate that [state aid is] not a large revenue source for our district, but it will definitely be a challenge to address,” Ms. Gierasch said during the school board meeting.

Mr. Meyer said further cuts to state aid would be detrimental to Riverhead, which already does not receive its fair share of what’s known as Foundation Aid.

Gov. Cuomo traveled to Washington, D.C., Tuesday to meet with President Donald Trump to discuss additional COVID-19 testing and request that more federal aid be directed to state governments and municipalities.

The Shoreham-Wading River Board of Education postponed its planned Tuesday meeting until April 28. They plan to review the revenue budget for 2020-21 and then adopt a budget remotely on May 5, according to board president Michael Lewis.

A public hearing will follow, but officials aren’t sure when.

“With an unofficial budget vote of early June, this provides us with the most flexibility if additional guidance or directives are provided by NYSED,” Mr. Lewis said Monday.

Southold schools, which had previously unveiled a preliminary budget of $31.3 million, and Greenport school have not adopted budgets yet, according to Superintendent David Gamberg.