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NY Regents board urges that school-aid funding stays virtually level through academic year 2021-2022

Vice Chancellor T. Andrew Brown speaks to members

Vice Chancellor T. Andrew Brown speaks to members of the New York State Board of Regents during a meeting at the State Education Department Nov. 4, 2019, in Albany. Credit: Hans Pennink

The state's Board of Regents urged Monday that school-aid funding be held virtually level through the end of the 2021-22 academic year — a sharp contrast to the two-billion-dollar increase endorsed last year.

Calls for curbs on growth of state educational funding reflected "fiscal realities and restraints" brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic disruption, the board's leadership said. The baseline aid figure set in 2019-20 was $27.6 billion statewide, state education officials added.

For 2020-21, the board last December originally recommended a hike of $2 billion or more than 7%. After the pandemic struck, state lawmakers last April approved a far more modest increase that worked out to less than 1% on Long Island.

"The unpredictable nature of the pandemic coupled with the state's current fiscal situation have created a planning quandary for our schools and cultural institutions," said the Regents vice chancellor, T. Andrew Brown. He expressed hope that Washington lawmakers would ultimately provide extra financial relief for schools.

To provide additional stability, Regents recommend restoration of about $1.1 billion in statewide school aid that was cut last spring and temporarily replaced with federal relief money.

Federal funds would be redirected to their original purpose of meeting COVID-19 costs.

In addition, other state funds would be allocated to reimburse school districts for such costs as bus transportation and special education. Total costs of the plan are estimated at $1.8 billion.

Regents recommendations on state aid are advisory; the final say is up to the governor and State Legislature.

The Regents' plan envisions no increases in "foundation" aid, which is the state's largest education-assistance program and is especially tailored for poorer districts. Both the Regents and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo have said that any future aid reductions should be done in a "progressive" manner that would harm poor districts the least.

Some experts have pointed out however, that less-wealthy districts such as Hempstead are so dependent on state aid, compared with wealthier systems, that no amount of "progressive" adjustment is likely to prevent inequalities.

"It really isn't going to solve the problem," said Roger Tilles of Manhasset, who represents Long Island on the Regents board.

Others said the board's plan represented an attempt, at least, to deal with a complex situation.

"We sympathize with the challenge the Regents faced," said Robert Lowry, deputy director for the New York State Council of School Superintendents. "We and other public school groups have been unsettled about what to advocate for 2021-22 while we wait to see what, if anything, Washington will do for states and schools to help us get through this year — 2020-21."

Cuomo has warned repeatedly that the state is running a deficit, and that he may have to cut school aid by up to 20%, unless the federal government comes through with more money. Some analysts, while conceding the state faces a deficit, believe the governor exaggerates the size of the shortfall.

The governor also has predicted that Congress may not settle on a new relief bill until President-elect Joseph R. Biden takes office next month.

Adding to the complexities of the situation are the difficulties in tracking school-spending patterns, as districts close and reopen to deal with viral outbreaks.

District officials point out they are spending millions of dollars for unforseen expenses such as additional teachers to allow smaller class sizes. Taxpayer advocates note, on the other hand, that districts often save money on canceled programs such as sports and field trips.

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