ALBANY — Upstate school districts are facing financial storm clouds even as they eye reserve funds to tide them over as the Cuomo administration withholds 20 percent of their state support.
"Those 20 percent withholds are far more damaging the longer you go into the school year," said David Little, executive director of the Rural Schools Association of New York State.
With districts now five months into the their fiscal year, it makes it more challenging to find ways to cushion themselves from the cuts, he noted.
The Cuomo administration is grappling with its own budgetary crisis — an $8.7 billion deficit that looms at a time when revenues are depressed and unemployment is elevated well above pre-pandemic levels.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has avoided making deep cuts to the state agencies he controls, instead banking on the state acquiring a major bailout from a second round of stimulus funding being negotiated by congressional leaders.
For some school districts, reserve funds set aside for unanticipated expenses have allowed officials to refrain from laying off teachers and other staffers, in hopes the state will forward the money that was withheld, if the stimulus package wins congressional approval, Little said.
But adding to the bad financial news for school administrators, the state Education Department revealed Nov. 6 that the districts would not be eligible for transportation aid during the period from March to June when schools shifted to remote learning in response to a Cuomo executive order.
Slashing such funding creates "a devastating situation for our schools and students," the state Educational Conference Board, an umbrella group made up of organizations representing superintendents, school boards and others, said in a memo urging lawmakers to address the issue.
School buses were used by many districts to deliver lunches and supplies to students. Meanwhile, administrators, not knowing when schools could reopen, opted to keep transportation staff on the payroll out of concern they would not be able to line up bus drivers if schools reopened, said Robert Lowry, deputy director for advocacy of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.
"Districts have been incurring these costs in good faith to comply with what the state asked of them," Lowry said in an interview. "It was also the right thing to do."
The Conference Board estimated the school districts could lose out on $500 million due to the state's decision regarding the transportation expenses incurred while classrooms went online learning. The educators are also citing the fact that the federal CARES Act, the first round of stimulus funding, specified that school districts getting aid keep staffers on the payroll when possible
The Cuomo administration is reviewing the issue and is offering some hope that the districts won't be left on the hook.
"We are sensitive to the food and instructional material deliveries, and if they provided these services, we will work with districts to reimburse them," said Freeman Klopott, a Cuomo administration spokesman.
State officials have been planning for the possibility that coronavirus infection rates could grow even higher this winter after increasing in recent weeks.
The state will try to ensure schools have an ample supply of testing equipment, Cuomo told reporters this week.
“All the data says the schools are safer than the surrounding community,’' the governor said, adding: “We want to continue testing in the school. But we need a sustainable testing rate in the schools.”
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org