School districts face uncertainty as preliminary state budget shows cuts in aid

Nearly every local school district would face cuts in state aid under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed 2021-22 budget.

As the governor presented his budget proposal last week, two vastly different scenarios emerged, each of which hinges on the level of federal aid the state will receive.

While the governor remains hopeful that with new leadership in Washington, the state may get a fairer share, it’s unclear if forthcoming relief packages will be enough to address New York’s $15 billion budget shortfall.

If it does not receive $15 billion in federal funding, the state may consider proposals to raise taxes on those making over $5 million annually, delay a middle-class tax cut and cut state funding for schools, Medicaid and other areas, Mr. Cuomo said. The state is also weighing whether to legalize recreational marijuana and sports betting to increase revenue.

Mr. Cuomo’s proposal relies on already-approved federal money to increase overall education funding, but preliminary aid runs released by the state last week show that several area districts are facing cuts.

Based on those preliminary numbers, the Riverhead Central School District would face the steepest total state aid cuts, losing approximately $196,435 next year, a .49% decrease.

But at a Board of Education meeting Tuesday, district officials cautioned that the state aid runs may be “misleading.”

Deputy Superintendent Sam Schneider said that for the first time, the governor is listing as part of state aid the projected School Tax Relief program money that is paid by the state to eligible homeowners in lieu of tax levy payments. As STAR payments, used to offset the levy collection, decline, homeowners’ property tax bills go up.

To put things in historical context, Mr. Schneider alluded to a graph that showed the total STAR amount falling from $8.3 million in 2012 to $6.1 million in 2022, a drop of 5.71% from 2021.

Mr. Schneider said the school district would “yield a little bit more revenue. In terms of the homeowners, the property owners, they’re going to have to pay more money in property taxes because of the loss in STAR payments.”

In addition, the governor’s proposal consolidates 11 classes of aid, from BOCES and textbooks to transportation, into a single “services aid” category that Mr. Schneider said faces a 16% reduction statewide.

“Our reduction is less. It’s about seven percent, but it certainly is a hit that’s difficult for us to absorb, given the overall financial standing we have as a result of being on a contingent budget,” he said.

The Mattituck-Cutchogue district, which receives considerably less overall in state funding, would also see a cut of approximately $187,078, or 4.38%.

While state aid typically remains a question mark at this time of year, the uncertainties are adding complication as districts begin to plot out spending plans for next year.

At a Board of Education meeting last Thursday, Mattituck-Cutchogue Superintendent Jill Gierasch warned members about the potential cuts, noting that while the numbers aren’t final, they should be taken into consideration.

In a statement, Ms. Gierasch said officials are approaching their budget process carefully. 

“There is a strong focus on preserving and enhancing programs, while at the same time monitoring necessary expenditures,” she said. “The uncertainty of future state aid and additional federal funding keep us anxiously waiting.”

In 2020, Mattituck received approximately $4.2 million in state aid. Riverhead received nearly $40 million. 

Officials in the Shoreham-Wading River School District, which could lose $159,550 in state funding according to the projections, did not respond to requests for comment.

Southold Superintendent Anthony Mauro said Monday that he was still “unpacking” the numbers. Southold, which currently receives about $2,717,963, is slated to receive $37,792 less next year.

“I believe the budget is not as stable as any of us would like since it hinges on federal monies,” Dr. Mauro said, adding that he plans to approach the budget “cautiously” for the next few years.

The only North Fork district that’s poised to see an increase in funding next year is Greenport, though the increase is just $8,931 over this year’s allocation of $2,125,920. Oysterponds would lose approximately $8,960 in state funding, according to the proposal.

State funding for the New Suffolk district was not included on the state aid run, since its small size requires aid to be calculated under a special formula.

The governor’s proposal was met with criticism from education advocates, who said funding for schools was cut disproportionately. 

“While understanding the current fiscal realities our state is facing, we cannot balance the state budget on the backs of our students by forcing school districts to use federal funding to fill the holes left in their budgets by a decrease in state aid,” interim state Education Commissioner Betty Rosa and Board of Regents Chancellor Lester Young said in a joint statement. “We are profoundly opposed to federal funds being used to replace state dollars to support our schools.”

Andy Pallotta, president of NYS United Teachers, which represents over 600,000 educators statewide, said the governor’s “worst-case scenario” plan to use federal money and still reduce education funding is reminiscent of the Gap Elimination Adjustment, which was used to help close a budget deficit a decade ago.

“As a state, we can’t afford to view cuts of any kind to public schools and colleges, public health care and other public services funded by state and local governments as a default option — especially when the billionaire class has seen its wealth grow as millions of New York families have struggled during this pandemic,” Mr. Pallotta said.

The state legislature, scheduled to adopt a budget by April 1, normally increases aid from the levels in the governor’s proposal, said Mr. Schneider. “I am hopeful that will happen again this year,” he said. “We are obviously in very unprecedented times and I think a lot of what is going to happen is going to be contingent on the kind of aid that the federal government provides to all states, including New York.”

Ms. Tona said Mr. Schneider and herself have arranged to meet with three members of the state Assembly — Jodi Giglio (R-Riverhead), Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) and Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) — to present the district’s case for additional aid.

“We know that we have a hill to climb, being on a contingent budget this year that is essentially a year’s worth of levy growth that we will not have, so we do feel that we need to ask our local politicians for some assistance,” Riverhead interim Superintendent Christine Tona said Tuesday. “The ’21-22 budget, it will be a challenge to put it together, but together we’ll do the best that we can to provide as much as we can for our students.”