At the height of the pandemic, the William Floyd district delivered...

At the height of the pandemic, the William Floyd district delivered an estimated half-million meals to homebound students via yellow buses. Credit: James Carbone

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the William Floyd school district delivered an estimated half-million meals to homebound students via yellow buses.

So local officials grew alarmed last week when advised by the state that they wouldn't be compensated for costs of those deliveries.

"If we are not reimbursed, you're talking about a potential devastating hit of $3.5 million," said Kevin Coster, superintendent of William Floyd's 8,900-student system.

State law on this issue is unequivocal, state education authorities say: Financial reimbursement for busing is meant to help with costs of transporting students, not pizza and veggie burgers.

Many argue that the law should be changed, however, with virus infection rates rising once again and schools threatened with closings. The state Board of Regents on Monday proposed an amendment allowing state-aid reimbursements when buses are used for such purposes as delivering lunches and homework packets.

The final decision is up to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state legislators, who face a growing budget squeeze. A spokesman for the governor's budget division, Freeman Klopott, said his agency was considering its own options for reimbursement.

Roger Tilles of Manhasset, who represents Long Island on the Regents board, said he has heard from dozens of districts that any state denial of compensation would "really leave holes in their budgets."

For the 2020-21 school year, Albany has projected $2.1 billion in aid for student transportation statewide. That figure is expected to drop substantially, given the large numbers of school closings that have already occurred.

Now school officials are pressing the state to expand subsidies for busing, and they cite a number of reasons why such action is necessary and reasonable:

  • The federal CARES Act, which provided pandemic relief payments, stipulated that school districts and other entities receiving money should continue paying employees and contractors to the extent possible. This included bus drivers and mechanics.
  • Legal mandates required districts to continue providing students with meals, even after schools closed. Many districts, especially larger ones, determined that parents and students could face hardships in picking up food unless delivered to nearby bus stops.
  • From mid-March through May 1, the governor announced school closings in two-week intervals. This prompted many districts to keep buses and drivers on standby, in case schools reopened.

"To deny state reimbursement for their efforts now would constitute a breach of faith with those school districts and their taxpayers," said Robert Lowry, deputy director for the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

Lowry added that his group was not disputing state law, but rather asking for a one-time exception that would allow reimbursement for expenses incurred under unusual circumstances.

The Council estimates that the state's ruling on reimbursement could adversely affect more than half the approximately 700 districts statewide, and that dollar losses could run in the hundreds of millions.

Albany's only hope of providing more money to schools appears to hang on the possibility of a large-scale federal bailout similar to one provided in March. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has softened his opposition on the issue, but the situation remains in flux.

Cuomo has maintained that without relief, he might have to cut school aid substantially.

"We're planning in the shadow of a 20% cut," said Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Malverne schools. "Give me a break."

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