As schools in New York State grapple with reopening plans during the COVID-19 pandemic, they are also facing a temporary 20% cut in state funding, that could become permanent.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget office is withholding one-fifth of the aid owed to school districts in the first of several payments owed to schools over the course of the school year. The state has a $14.5 billion deficit, due to plummeting revenues after the pandemic related economic shutdown. Anticipated aid from Congress has not yet materialized, as Republicans in the Senate continue to oppose relief for state and local governments harmed by the pandemic.
Schools budgets are already stretched as schools invest in personal protective equipment, new air filtration systems and extra bus runs as they finalize complicated reopening plans.
Andy Pallotta, head of the New York State United Teachers, told public TV’s New York Now that if the 20% cuts are made permanent, it will be disastrous.
“I will be a catastrophe,” Pallotta said in mid-August. “Many school districts depend just about totally on state aid to get their programs running.”
Dave Albert, with the New York State School Boards Association, says even in a normal year a 20% cut in state aid represents a “tremendous cut”, and he predicts that more schools would be forced to offer only virtual learning.
“It just might become really impractical to do anything in person,” Albert said in late July.
The potential impact of the cuts is stressing students, who are already facing angst from the ongoing pandemic.
Tali Beckwith-Cohen, a student in the Rochester City School District - one that has already experienced midyear layoffs of teachers and other staff due to an existing fiscal crunch - spoke about how she felt during a Zoom news conference organized by the pro-school funding group Alliance for Quality Education.
“We feel abandoned, completely ignored by those who claim to fight for us,” Beckwith-Cohen said. “And we are starting to feel hopeless, we are watching our district crumble around us”.
Alliance for Quality Education Executive Director Jasmine Gripper says the state should dip into its $2 billion reserve fund to help schools temporarily, then impose new taxes on the wealthy to fund schools in future years.
“A short term solution is to use the rainy day funds to prevent further cuts and reductions to schools,” said Gripper. “The long term solution is to tax the ultra rich, and to raise new revenue for our state.”
The leaders of the state legislature are in favor of increasing taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers in order to help close the budget gap. Cuomo has resisted that idea, saying even billionaires can not provide enough in revenues to close the massive budget gap. He's holding out for federal aid as the solution.
“We have about a $14 billion loss of revenue. We have about a $5 billion cost of this COVID virus. We know that we'd have to have drastic budget cuts if we don't get aid,” the governor said in late July.
Advocates for funding the schools, as well as many state lawmakers are wondering, though, how long can the state wait.
The federal relief package was expected to be finalized in early July, but Democrats and Republicans remain at odds and action is not expected until at least late September, weeks after the school year has started.