With the inflation rate at its highest in years, Long Island school districts are making tougher financial decisions for essential needs such as cleaning supplies and copy paper. Newsday TV's Shari Einhorn has more on this story. Credit: James Carbone

The Baldwin school district is paying nearly double the price for garbage bags. In Plainview-Old Bethpage, it's costing the district 5% to 7% more for cleaning supplies than last year. And in Freeport, district officials are paying 30% more for copy paper.

Inflation is having a larger-than-expected impact on Long Island’s 124 public school districts, school officials said. To save, districts have been cutting back on supplies, delaying bulk orders, altering some capital projects, and considering tapping into reserves.

The Island's nearly 400,000 students return to the classrooms this month, starting Aug. 29 and continuing through Sept. 8.

"We're still having to be very flexible. We're still having to be very smart … because the problems that we're being faced with are not problems we've seen before," Baldwin Superintendent Shari Camhi said, referring to price increases.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Long Island school officials are finding that inflation has impacted the everyday expenses that keep schools running — from fuel to crayons to toilet paper.
  • Schools start budget planning months before voters approve the spending plans each May. Inflation escalated so highly and so quickly that the unexpected costs eluded the best-planned purchases.
  • Experts say the Island’s and state’s school systems — due to record state and federal aid — should be able to weather the skyrocketing costs, at least for this year.
Baldwin Superintendent Shari Camhi.

Baldwin Superintendent Shari Camhi. Credit: James Carbone

Inflation spiked to 9% nationally in June, its highest level in decades, and was at 8.5% in July. Inflation numbers escalated so quickly that the unexpected costs eluded even the best-planned budgets, officials said. Schools start budget planning months before voters approve spending plans in May of each year. 

"When preparing the budget … we knew of rising inflation, but no one expected it to be 9%," Freeport Superintendent Kishore Kuncham said.

Island districts received a record $457 million in extra federal and state aid for 2022-23, some related to the COVID-19 pandemic, so they are expected to weather the costs, at least for this year, superintendents and experts said. Most of the extra money is coming from "foundation" aid, the state's single-biggest source of funding for schools.

But "the prospect of multiple years of high inflation is a concerning trend for education," said Brian Cechnicki, New York executive director of the Association of School Business Officials.

"The saving grace is the additional federal money that school districts have received … as well as the now long-promised increase in foundation aid," he added. "It's not a permanent solution. … It's important the inflationary environment starts to turn around. Otherwise, school districts will start to see a more difficult challenge in the future."

Baldwin officials have watched expenses climb in the recent months. The district normally would make bulk purchases during this time, but to save money, "We're going to make sure that we buy what we need. We need to watch to see what happens with prices," Camhi said.

Health insurance costs are up 12%, heating fuel is up 80%, and paper has spiked 43%, Camhi said. Even color markers are up 16%, and garbage bags cost 98% more than last year, she said.

"There's a lot of unknowns," Camhi said. "Right now, we are managing," but that could change "if we continue to see things like toilet paper go up at 50%, or fuel continue at 80%."

In Freeport, inflation-related costs have added about $1 million to $1.5 million to the $209 million budget approved by voters in May, Kuncham said. District officials had built inflationary increases of about 4% to 5% into the 2022-23 budget. If necessary, they may dip into the district's reserve funds or consider other options so that programs are not affected, he said.

The district is using $15 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, foundation aid and its capital reserve fund to make improvements and upgrades at buildings and classrooms. But project expenses have risen about 20%, Kuncham said, and the federal funding has to be spent within the next two years.

"What that means is if I am doing 10 million dollars worth of a project, I am only able to do 8 million," Kuncham said. "I have to make some decisions … which ones to move forward on and which ones not to."

Like consumers, the district faces similar pressures on small-ticket items, too, but on a grander scale. Copy paper is up 23% to 30%, and paper towels are up 20%.

This year's inflation rate will have a "tremendous impact" on next year's budget prep, Kuncham said, especially since the district's contract with its teaching staff is coming up for renewal. 

"The biggest concern for me is as we embark on proposing the budget for next year — 2023-24 — will the state be able to keep the promise of fully funding the foundation aid under these inflationary conditions?" he said.

Plainview-Old Bethpage officials have watched prices climb, too. They have seen jumps in the cost of green cleaning supplies used in the district's eight buildings and for technology-related expenses as well. Cleaning supply costs have risen 5% to 7%, and prices for computer hardware, network switches and wireless access points have risen about the same or even higher, said Christopher Dillon, assistant superintendent for business.

These increases have led the district "to have alternate equipment replacement plans and workaround lead times and manufacturing delays," he said. 

The district upgraded parking lots and sidewalks this summer, and "you see the increases there, and there have been situations where we put off work or had to rebid because the work came in over the estimate. It's like that across the board."

Island districts had been dealing with challenges even before inflation numbers spiked, including a school bus driver shortage and soaring fuel prices.

"Fuel costs are unpredictable," said Lance Lohman, superintendent of the Longwood district, adding that fuel costs impact not only the district's transportation, but also equipment used to maintain school campuses, from landscaping to snow removal.

With Shari Einhorn

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