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Take A Scalpel, Not A Sledgehammer, To School Budgets

No one knows if or when the federal government will come to agreement on a stimulus package.

Federal inaction means the state has to make tough decisions on how to spend its money — and give Gov. Andrew Cuomo credit for doing what is necessary to bring the state’s finances into balance.

Education is one of the state’s biggest expenses, so school aid has always been on the chopping block if federal aid didn’t materialize. But, if New York is going to pursue cuts to education aid, it should do so differently than it is doing now.

Over the past couple of weeks, school districts were notified that the state was holding back about 20% of aid released in Excess Cost Aid and Deferred Building Aid. The summer aid withholdings are saving the state about $1 billion. But, if similar aid cuts continue — including a large disbursement at the end of September — the state looks to save about $27 billion.

That’s why this situation needs to be resolved quickly.

Rather than taking a 20% sledgehammer to school budgets, it would be better if the state would take a scalpel to school aid to achieve as much of a savings as possible. Across-the-board cuts hurt urban districts more than small districts, and typically hurt students who need school the most. If schools have to be cut — and right now it’s likely — then the cuts should do as little harm as possible.

One way to minimize cuts to schools, however, is to cut in other areas. For example, a fifth round of the Downtown Revitalization Initiative comes at a cost of $100 million. It should be eliminated. The film tax credit, at a cost of $430 million, should be eliminated from the budget. Spending on state-backed economic development projects, like a $50 million ski resort upgrade that was included in the 2020-21 budget, that hasn’t already begun should be postponed until the state is on firmer economic ground.

In three broad strokes, the state could save $580 million — or half of the already withheld state aid. We’re pretty sure there are other similar cuts out there that could be had if legislators could come to consensus.

Of course, that requires dealing with the other elephant in the room — the governor’s emergency powers. Cutting aid, but calling it withheld as opposed to cut, means the state Legislature can’t come in and play with the budget because nothing has formally changed. For months, Cuomo has run our lives with little legislative interference. Now, his broad emergency powers are affecting your schools. It’s time to end the emergency powers so that legislators can have a seat at the table too.

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