State Needs A Way To Reopen School Budgets With Real Public Process
If there is one area Gov. Andrew Cuomo is flunking right now in his handling of COVID-19, it is the uncertainty of state aid to schools.
Schools had been told that an analysis at the end of April would dictate how much state aid to schools would be cut this year. That analysis by Robert Mujica, state budget director, would tell schools what their aid would be in time to plan school budgets when the new school financial year starts on July 1.
Those revised numbers still haven’t been finalized, in part because Cuomo and Mujica are trying to wheedle more money out of the federal government to help plug the state’s $10 billion to $15 billion budget gap caused by the cratering of state revenues from the COVID-19 shutdown. While the governor and Mujica seem to be trying to keep hope alive that the federal government will come through, the end result on local school districts is a budgetary uncertainty they haven’t seen for more than a decade.
School budgets had to be approved by Tuesday so that legally required public hearings could be held and state-mandated filing deadlines met. Because state aid hadn’t been released, schools are passing budgets that may not be worth the paper on which they are printed. Clymer, for example, is passing a budget that includes a pay freeze for both of the district’s unions, cuts one teaching position, eliminates a new reading program and increases unemployment costs. It also relies on the most optimistic reading of the state aid tea leaves revealed so far by Cuomo and Mujica.
“We’re not getting any more information about our aid at this point in time that I’m aware of,” Baghat said. “We were supposed to get new aid numbers last week and we didn’t get them. Nobody has really discussed when they’re going to release anything related to any changes in the state aid.
In Clymer, there are options in hand if state aid is less than expected — and they are ugly options. One option cuts three teaching while the most drastic option cuts seven teaching positions, a guidance counselor’s position, change a principal’s position from full-time to part-time, eliminate any additional classroom activities for kindergarten through eighth grades and cuts junior varsity sports. By the way, those cuts don’t eliminate the entire gap. That’s why Louann Baghat, Clymer business executive, said she hopes that budget option is one the district never sees.
State aid is the most important part of a school district’s budget. Expecting local officials to pass a realistic budget without knowing that bit of information is just asking for trouble down the road and renders meaningless the public participation in the local school budget process.
If drastic cuts are needed, the state must come up with a way to reopen school budgets so that a real public process can be had.