Every School Dollar Counts

Districts begin budget planning amid aid uncertainty

Public school officials in the Highlands are moving ahead with budget deliberations for 2021-22, even as critical aid packages from the federal and state governments remain uncertain. 

The $30 million in state aid distributed to the Beacon City School District last year accounted for 45 percent of its funding. The Garrison and Haldane districts, which draw more revenue through property taxes than Beacon and have fewer students, are not as reliant on state aid, using it to fund 8 percent and 12 percent, respectively, of their spending. 

Districts were told in August to expect 20 percent cuts in aid as the COVID-19 shutdown battered the state’s budget, leaving it billions of dollars in the red. Twice last year schools received federal pandemic aid, but, in a cost-saving measure, had an “adjustment” of the same amount withheld from their state support. 

However, Gov. Andrew Cuomo reversed course last month when he announced an ambitious education funding package as part of his 2021-22 budget proposal and told school officials they’d receive past-due payments from last year by the end of March. 

The governor’s proposal includes $31.7 billion in school funding, a 7.1 percent increase over last year, and consolidates 10 expense-based aid categories (such as textbooks, computers or transportation) into one pot — a move Cuomo says will help distribute state money more equitably to higher-need districts.

All that is dependent on Congress passing a federal stimulus package it has been deliberating for months. If passed, the aid package is projected to bring $6 billion to $15 billion to New York state.

State Assembly Member Jonathan Jacobson, whose district includes Beacon, said this week that he’s optimistic Congress will act soon. “We have a new administration in Washington that prioritizes education and realizes the effects of the pandemic are not restricted to red states or blue states,” said Jacobson, a Democrat. “It changes the whole equation.”

But Jacobson said he does not favor Cuomo’s proposal to consolidate school aid and thinks the state should keep distinct funding streams to track what money is being spent for which purpose. 

The Assembly and Senate must negotiate a spending plan with the governor by April 1.

The Beacon school board has also raised issues with the consolidation plan, saying in a letter sent last week to state legislators that “consolidating the aid categories lacks transparency and will lead to less predictability for schools when developing annual budgets.”

The Beacon district has been diligent about purchasing equipment, such as the Chromebook laptops that are assigned to every student, through the Dutchess Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), said Ann Marie Quartironi, the district’s deputy superintendent. Historically, purchases made through BOCES, rather than a third-party vendor, have been reimbursed 58 percent by the state.

But if the consolidation formula passes, purchases like the Chromebooks would become a “regular” expenditure reimbursed at a lower rate. 

Cuomo’s plan would also use federal money to fund the School Tax Relief (STAR) property tax reimbursement program and, as with last year’s federal pandemic aid, deduct STAR money from districts’ state funding. 

While school officials expect a federal aid package will be passed sooner rather than later, there’s ample concern that the effects of the pandemic will linger for years. If the governor uses stimulus money to fund schools this year, “then you have next year,” Quartironi said. “I don’t foresee the economy being back up and running by then.” 

A handful of teacher retirements will eliminate some spending on salaries in 2021-22 in Beacon, but that may be a drop in the bucket for a district that spent $275,000 on ventilators, cleaning materials, desk partitions, tent rentals and other pandemic expenses required to open for this year. In the fall, if schools attempt to bring most or all students back in-person, there will be new challenges and costs. 

Meredith Heuer, the president of the Beacon school board, praised teachers for rising to the challenges presented by this year’s hybrid-instruction model. “But if we can have all of our students back in the building together next year, we will need to help them catch up and heal from the trauma they are experiencing,” she said. “New York State using federal funds to supplant state funding ignores both the purpose of the funding and the risk of a financial cliff in the future.”

Two weeks ago, department heads began making their annual presentations to the school board to discuss funding needs for next year. Other than contractually negotiated salary increases and rising health insurance costs, the departments have been instructed to keep their budgets flat, Quartironi said. 

If the state receives less federal aid than anticipated, there are already items, such as teachers’ laptops and athletic assistant coaches, identified as a first line of cuts.

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