October 22, 2020

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education gives you strength

School districts ‘premature’ in making cuts

4 min read
ALBANY – State budget officials say school districts in the Capital Region planning or initiating...

ALBANY – State budget officials say school districts in the Capital Region planning or initiating sweeping program cuts and layoffs are acting “prematurely,” as they have yet to experience any drastic reductions in state aid.

An op-ed recently submitted to the Times Union by state budget Director Robert Mujica asserts that since June the state has withheld a “fraction of 1 percent, about $300 million, of the $75 billion in total school revenue, and $8.1 billion of the state’s $26.4 billion of school aid for this fiscal year has already been paid.”

“Some school districts are acting prematurely as they undertake mass layoffs; the fact is the state hasn’t withheld 20 percent of school aid,” Mujica wrote. “We all need to work together to fight for the federal assistance we deserve. If the federal government forces us to reduce spending, we’ll protect high-need districts from the impact as much as possible.”

The statements raise questions about actions taken by some school districts in the region, including Albany, Lansingburgh and Schenectady, which in recent weeks have announced layoffs and program cuts to deal with reductions in state funding.

Budget officials say less than $2 million collectively has been withheld from the three school districts — less than 1 percent of any of the district’s total budgets.

The reductions in school aid so far are $789,000 of Albany’s $116.9 million; $803,000 of Schenectady’s $132.9 million, and $199,000 of Lansingburgh’s $32.3 million.

Mujica’s assertions come as New York State Unified Teachers (NYSUT) — the labor union representing thousands of educators across the state — filed a lawsuit in state Supreme Court in Albany challenging the withholdings and calling for the release of school aid that was held back in July, August and September. The petition also seeks to prevent any future reductions in funding.

“Time is up,” NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said in a news release. “With the loss of state funding driving cuts at the local level in districts around the state, we can’t just keep waiting for action at the federal level to fund our schools. At this point, a lawsuit unfortunately is the necessary next step to compel our leaders to do what’s right: Fund our future and stop these cuts.”

NYSUT argues that the executive branch’s budget reduction authority violates the separation of powers in the state Constitution and is an unconstitutional delegation of the Legislature’s oversight and policy-making powers. The union also alleges Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s improper use of power has led to cuts that deprive students of the right to a “sound basic education” under the state Constitution.

Cuomo and members of his administration have for months warned school districts, local government agencies and various service providers who rely on state funds that without federal assistance to close an estimated $14.5 billion deficit, New York would need to trim aid and possibly make permanent cuts.

In mid-August, Questar III’s State Aid and Financial Planning, a planning platform for school administrators across New York, warned state aid payments would likely be reduced by 20 percent to schools. At that time, state budget officials repeated their mantra that without federal funding New York would be forced to “temporarily hold back a 20 percent portion of payments as they are made over the course of the year, including for school districts, which started in June.”

In late August and early September, local school district leaders announced sweeping layoffs and cuts in order to contend with anticipated budget shortfalls without full state aid payments. Officials have argued they can no longer wait for the federal government, or New York’s budget officials, to act on financial relief. Plus, the longer they wait, the deeper the cuts may need to be, they said.

Troy City School District officials say about $375,000 in expense aid was withheld over the summer, and represented a 20 percent reduction of what the district expected. While the urban district has yet to be hit with any other reductions, the administration is preparing for harder fiscal cuts in the future.

A collective $2.5 billion in foundation aid is slated to flow to schools at the end of the month, NYSUT’s lawsuit notes, a payment that Troy district Superintendent John Carmello said would hurt the district significantly if it were reduced.

“We will be in the same exact boat as other districts,” Carmello said, acknowledging the state may be right to say it’s a fraction of a 20 percent reduction, but that doesn’t provide the full picture. “What districts are worried about, and why my colleagues have closed their doors to save money is if that 20 percent is going to continue.”

The latest payment made to school districts may not be a huge financial cutback, but looking to the future “you’re talking about millions and millions of dollars,” he said.

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