The Same Old State Aid Song And Dance Needs To Be Changed

The time has come for some sort of predictable way for New York’s school districts to be able to budget the amount of aid they will receive from New York state.

On Tuesday, the Jamestown Public Schools Board of Education released a first draft of its budget. On March 26, the district is being asked to make assumptions about its state-related revenues that could render the entire exercise useless once the state budget is finalized.

Part of the problem is the byzantine way that state aid amounts are created. It is nearly impossible for anyone — even people who have spent the bulk of their adult lives on school boards or in school district administration – to decipher the categories of state aid and the formulas the state uses. Then, factor in trying to read the tea leaves left by state legislators and Gov. Andrew Cuomo as to how much money will actually make its way into the state budget each year. The state Legislature always adds money to the initial amounts proposed by the governor — but how much does one budget?

Not being able to answer that question is how you end up in a school board meeting in late March with five state aid revenue options starting with the governor’s budget proposal — which comes with a required $1,245,050 in spending cuts to balance the budget — and options ranging from a 1 percent increase to a 5 percent increase. In Jamestown, district officials built the budget with a 2.5 percent aid increase from the governor’s budget proposal. A 2.5 percent increase from Cuomo’s budget means there is no local tax levy increase, and district officials said Tuesday that figure is an amount they feel comfortable building the budget around based on discussions they’ve had with legislators and education officials in Albany.

Basing the biggest revenue line in the district’s budget on phrases like, “We hear” or “We’ve been told” or “We were encouraged” is a far cry from having a predictable number. The uncertainty doesn’t just affect a school district’s budget preparation. The dollars and cents on a spreadsheet affect the people we ask to educate children. Fearing budget cuts because of worst-case scenarios driven by Albany’s annual shenanigans is a bad mix for teachers, aides and paraprofessionals who already work under difficult circumstances. Lastly, it’s bad for taxpayers who could go from seeing no tax increase on March 26 to either a tax increase or massive cuts in April if district officials didn’t read the tea leaves correctly.

There are plenty of ways to bring clarity to state education aid. The state could create a simple foundation aid formula that regular people can understand and, of course, stick with it through thick and thin. The state could use a longer-term forecast on state aid, releasing proposed state aid totals with a proposed amount for the following year. The state could do as Cuomo has suggested and change the state’s fiscal year.

Any of those ideas is better than the same old tired song and dance that we’ve grown used to and sick of. This yearly dance over state aid needs to go the way of the Macarena. It was fun in the 1990s, but now, in 2019, it’s just plain old.