‘Profoundly disappointed’: Hundreds of NY schools could get less state money in new budget

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By Dan Sears

A key part of Gov. Kathy Hochul’s $233 billion budget proposal is drawing fierce opposition from a powerful force in Albany that, until now, had considered her something of a hero.

It’s the public education sector, which includes school boards, superintendents and the state teacher’s union, among other entities. The consortium served as a key ally during Hochul’s first two years in office and her successful 2022 election campaign, thanks in large part to the Democratic governor backing a big boost in state school aid over the last few years.

But now, those same public education advocates are pushing back hard against Hochul’s newly unveiled budget proposal, which would result in hundreds of school districts across New York getting less state money in the upcoming fiscal year by changing the complicated school funding formula.

“To say we are profoundly disappointed is an understatement,” said Melinda Person, president of the New York State United Teachers union.

Education spending makes up a huge chunk of the state funds in New York’s budget — about 27% — and Hochul’s proposals are not set in stone. Deciding how much money to put toward local schools has traditionally been one of the biggest annual battles between the governor and the Legislature, who negotiate a new budget every year.

But things aren’t off to a promising start this year. Hochul’s education plan could play a prominent role in a looming election in which suburban New York voters may decide the House’s balance of power.

An increase? Or a cut?

In classic Albany fashion, Hochul and the education sector can’t agree on the most fundamental of points: whether or not the governor’s budget proposal is increasing — or cutting — school aid.

Hochul says it’s an increase — and on an overall, year-to-year basis, she’s right.

The governor wants to spend $35.3 billion on education aid for the coming fiscal year, $825 million more than the current year. That includes $13.4 billion for New York City schools, a $342 million increase.

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But Person and other education advocates say it’s a cut. And that’s correct for 44% of the state’s 673 school districts, which would be due to receive less state funding in the next fiscal year.

“Call them what you want,” Person said. “These are cuts.”

Hochul anticipated the criticism when she delivered her budget address last week, delivering what amounted to a “prebuttal.”

“Despite that some will loudly protest — that … it’s not really an increase, but a cut — they’ll be wrong,” Hochul said. ‘New Yorkers doing their bills at the kitchen table understand this. They know what it’s like to make hard financial decisions for their family’s long-term well-being.”

At issue is the Foundation Aid formula, which is used to determine how much money each school district gets. It’s been in place since 2007 and is meant to ensure needier districts receive more state money, as opposed to wealthier districts that have larger property-tax bases to draw from.

Over the last two years, Hochul and lawmakers put an extra $4 billion toward the formula, making good on a funding promise then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer made when the Foundation Aid process was first put in place before the Great Recession derailed it. It garnered Hochul significant praise from the education community, which had spent years pushing for the additional funds.

Now, Hochul wants to make two major changes to the formula — which some education officials claim will undercut the prior gains.

“These cuts are unnecessary,” Person said. “And especially in this moment right now, as our schools are sort of taking the next steps to address learning loss and recovering from the pandemic, this is not the time for us to be reneging on the commitment to fund the schools.”

“She’s very proud of fully funding Foundation Aid,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, which represents New York City teachers. “I’ve heard her speak about it. Great. Now you’re going to change the formula so it’s drastically less?”

Getting rid of “hold harmless”

For one, Hochul wants to get rid of a long-standing policy known as “hold harmless,” which guarantees that every school district gets at least as much foundation aid as it received the year before — even if the formula called for a cut. That means some districts that have experienced continuous enrollment declines have continued to get the same level of funding.

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The second change has to do with the way the formula takes inflation into account. Hochul wants to use the 10-year average inflation rate, which amounts to 2.4%. The current formula uses the prior year’s inflation rate, which would be around 4%.

Patrick Orecki, director of state studies for the Citizens Budget Commission, said the changes are long overdue. The think tank has long called for eliminating the “hold harmless” provision, arguing that school districts with declining enrollment don’t need the same level of state funding they once did.

Blake Washington, Hochul’s budget director, said the change is meant to ensure the state’s “finite resources” are going to school districts with greater needs.

“That carries through some of the decisions we’re making in the governor’s budget, which is that you have to sort of rationalize what we spend and how we spend it,” he told reporters after Hochul unveiled her budget.

“When you’re looking at a place where need isn’t growing because enrollment isn’t growing, and you’re saying ‘That’s where we’re going to find our savings’ — that makes sense, in our position,” Orecki said.

Senate pushback

Add it all up, and aid for about half of school districts would decrease from year to year, according to the governor’s budget documents — including for 19 of Westchester County’s 41 school districts and 34 of Suffolk County’s 65 districts. Both counties are home to suburban populations.

Dozens of lawmakers — who all face re-election this year and are loath to cut aid for their local districts — are already siding with the schools.

“Our conference … is open to having conversations about it,” said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers). “But anything that starts with half of the school districts in the state getting less money is obviously a very difficult conversation to begin in earnest.”

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Senate Education Committee Chair Shelley Mayer (D-Yonkers) said Hochul’s proposal “falls far short of what our students, teachers and school communities need right now.”

“Our schools need continued investment and support from the state to meet the complex needs of students and school communities, not an austerity budget that cuts their funding,” she said in a statement.

The school funding issue is already making its way to the campaign trail.

Long Island and the Hudson Valley are key congressional battlegrounds this year, with Democrats and Republicans hoping to gain or keep seats that could have a major effect on the balance of Congress.

Republicans are trying to use Hochul’s proposal to their advantage.

Hudson Valley Rep. Marc Molinaro’s campaign issued a statement on Monday accusing Democrats of trying to “cut funding for your child’s education [rather] than control our borders,” a reference to Hochul’s budget, which also includes $2.4 billion to assist with an increase in migrants arriving in New York.

Mazi Pilip, a Nassau County legislator running for ex-Rep. George Santos’ vacated seat in Queens and on Long Island, issued a similar statement.

The state’s new fiscal year begins April 1. Hochul and lawmakers have until then to get a final spending plan in place, though they can easily extend the deadline by passing temporary spending bills.

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