Outside funding changes outlook for district

As recently as December, Ann Marie Quartironi, the deputy superintendent of the Beacon City School District who oversees the budget, was contemplating cuts. 

Because of the pandemic shutdown, the district faced a 20 percent reduction in state funding, a far more important source of revenue for Beacon than wealthier districts such as Haldane or Garrison. Her daunting job was to figure out which programs, or staff, to recommend that the school board cut first. 

There were several moving parts at play. The district knew it would receive an infusion of federal pandemic relief that month, but for every federal dollar received, the state was deducting the same amount from its aid package, calling it a “pandemic adjustment” — an immediate zero-sum game. 

While the state promised it would repay those adjustments in 2021, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s preliminary 2021-22 budget was murky. He proposed $31.7 billion in school funding, a 7.1 percent increase over last year, but it was contingent on Congress approving a second federal stimulus plan, which had not yet happened. 

“Cuomo was really leaning on that,” Quartironi said this week. “If we didn’t get the American Rescue Plan,” budget cuts “absolutely would have been made.”

The rescue plan was passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden last month. That’s when things began to change for the better, she said. 

The package sent more than $12 billion to New York, including $4.2 million to the Beacon school district, $182,000 to Haldane and $232,000 to Garrison. In addition, the state budget, adopted April 7, made good on Cuomo’s pledge for school funding.

Assembly Members Jonathan Jacobson, whose district includes Beacon, and Sandy Galef, whose district includes Philipstown, both voted for the budget. Sen. Sue Serino, whose district includes the Highlands, voted “no.” 

“This has been a real roller-coaster ride of a budget season,” Superintendent Matt Landahl told the school board on Monday (April 12). “We were looking at pretty substantive cuts and now we’ve had a lot of positive things happen. It’s felt like a new surprise every day.”

What happened?

“The answer is Georgia,” Jacobson said on Tuesday, referring to the two run-off elections in the state in January that, both won by Democrats, shifted the U.S. Senate from Republican to Democratic control. “Once there was a change in leadership in the Senate, it became possible for the federal government to give New York State money [to help offset pandemic costs] and allow us to do what we should have been doing all along, to fund education properly.”

City of Beacon Also Benefits

When the Beacon City Council adopted the city’s 2021 budget in December, it anticipated drawing about $2.3 million from reserves to balance the $22.4 million general fund budget. Mayor Lee Kyriacou said that was a worst-case scenario, depending on how much state aid and sales tax revenue the city received. 

City Administrator Chris White said on Wednesday (April 14) that Beacon will receive about $1.5 million from the state’s Aid and Incentives for Municipalities (AIM) program — more than anticipated. The unexpected revenue will lower the amount the city must draw from savings to about $736,000, or roughly a third of the high projection.

In addition to the stimulus package, legislators during budget negotiations created tax brackets for people making more than $5 million and $25 million annually while raising taxes on those earning more than $1 million. The state also brought in more income and sales tax revenue last year than was projected at the onset of the pandemic, Jacobson said. 

Serino criticized Cuomo for raising taxes despite the stimulus funding and said that while she supports the school aid, the budget is “bloated with backward priorities.”

Jacobson, however, maintained that parents, educators and other advocates were outspoken that public education could not become a casualty of the pandemic.

“Our schools are really struggling during this moment of crisis,” said Jasmine Gripper, the executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, a group that organized two rallies in Albany last month. “You can’t cut schools when you’re asking them to do something this historic that they’ve never done before.”

‘A moral victory’

A major component of the budget’s education funding is its commitment to make good on “foundation aid” — unrestricted funding that makes up the bulk of what districts receive each year from the state. 

While the state was ordered to begin providing the aid in 2007, following a protracted legal battle, the economic downturn occurred soon after and it began making only partial payments to districts. 

Nearly 15 years later, the state teachers’ union says the Beacon district is owed $1.7 million in unpaid aid. While the 2021-22 New York State budget doesn’t repay that debt, it will give districts 60 percent of this year’s payment and commits to paying 100 percent annually by 2023. (Haldane is owed $649,000 and Garrison is not owed anything, the union says.) 

Beacon anticipates $30.7 million in overall school funding from the state this year. Some is expense-driven aid that repays the district for transportation, equipment and other costs, while $20.1 million is the unrestricted foundation money — about $600,000 more than in 2020-21.

“We are really pleased that, after a year of threats of devastating cuts, we’re seeing this extra funding,” said Meredith Heuer, president of the school board. “The foundation increase isn’t huge in the scheme of our entire budget but it is a moral victory that acknowledges the state was not helping districts provide an equitable education to our students.”

School Board Member Anthony White, who was the board’s president from 2016 to 2020, traced that victory to 2017, when district officials began meeting with Serino, Jacobson and other legislators. “They didn’t understand that a school district is a different financial institution than a private business,” White said. “If we have a gap in funding from one year to the next, it really hinders our operations. It’s like we’re on pins and needles each year.”

Landahl told the school board on Monday that the plan for the 2021-22 budget, with the outside funding now resolved, will be “maintaining the huge gains” of the past four years. Since 2017, the district has added seven elementary teachers, a fourth-grade music teacher (making that program permanent), a social worker at Beacon High School and a part-time art teacher at the high school. It also has revamped professional development programs and equipped every student with a Chromebook laptop — a significant advantage during more than a year of virtual and hybrid schooling. 

“Our hope and goal is that the budget undergirds all of this work and puts us in a good position to build,” he said. 

For 2021-22, the district plans to add a prekindergarten teacher to pilot a full-day program and provide more hotspots for students who don’t have internet access at home. It also hopes to partner with the Dutchess Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) on professional development, Landahl said, and will support the creation of new and expanded music, arts, theater and other extracurricular clubs to foster a “holistic student experience.”

The board will meet at 7 p.m. on Monday (April 19) to adopt the 2021-22 budget, which includes $76.9 million in spending. The district’s state-mandated tax cap for 2021 is 2.35 percent, which translates to a $42.6 million tax levy, or $980,000 more than last year. The budget, along with four school board seats, will be on the ballot for district voters on May 18. 

Behind The Story

Type: News

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Simms has covered Beacon for The Current since 2015. He studied journalism at Appalachian State University and has reported for newspapers in North Carolina and Maryland. Location: Beacon. Languages: English. Area of expertise: Beacon politics