ALBANY — Normally, state election years would be considered good times for public schools on Long Island and elsewhere, as lawmakers seeking re-election loosen the purse strings.
However, 2018 could prove an exception.
The point was underscored Tuesday, when the state Board of Regents voted to recommend a statewide increase in financial assistance for the 2018-19 school year of $1.6 billion. That’s down substantially from the $2.1 billion Regents recommended for 2017-18.
Any tightening of state aid could have a major impact on schools in Nassau and Suffolk counties, which account for more than 65 percent of the region’s high property taxes. Since 2012, schools here and elsewhere have been restricted in their own power to raise tax revenues by the imposition of state caps on taxation.
Much of the caution shown this week by Regents and their advisers in the state Education Department stems from recent shifts in federal tax and spending policies under the administration of President Donald Trump.
“While districts are facing challenges, the state itself is facing its own fiscal challenges, with the uncertain future of federal funds in multiple program areas,” declared a staff statement that accompanied the Regents recommendation.
State revenues are a question mark as well, the statement noted. State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli reported on Oct. 31, for example, that tax collections for the first half of the fiscal year were $767.9 million less than for the same period last year and $386.6 million below state projections.
The Regents’ implicit warning comes on the eve of the annual school-budget season. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is due to kick things off next month with his annual budget message accompanied by district-by-district aid proposals.
The Regents’ annual recommendations on state school aid are only that — advisory — and the final say is up to the governor and state lawmakers. Nonetheless, Regents stress that they want their recommendations to be financially realistic, in order to be taken seriously.
“This is an attempt to be reasonable about it,” said Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who reports to the 17-member education-policy board.
The cautious note is echoed on the Island, where many school administrators agree that proposed federal cuts in health programs, education and other areas could have a ripple effect across the state and its localities.
“We share the same concerns as the Board of Regents,” said Lars Clemensen, president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association. “We’re in a very unique, uncharted territory these days, with the prospect of big federal cuts.”
Clemensen, superintendent of Hampton Bays schools, noted that districts such as his face rising expenses.
This includes costs of providing bilingual and English-language instruction to growing numbers of immigrant students, particularly from Central and South America. About 24 percent of Hampton Bays’ own students have limited English skills.
Across the Island, taxpayer groups point out, on the other hand, that school districts generally have managed in recent years to accumulate cash surpluses as a hedge against financial downturns. The comptroller’s office has criticized more than two dozen districts in the region for building reserves through improper procedures such as overestimating expenses and underestimating revenues.