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Island schools get bump in state aid package, but funding not guaranteed

Part of the school aid in the state

Part of the school aid in the state budget will come from federal relief money under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, including $4.6 million for the Brentwood school district. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Prospects for $1.2 billion in pandemic relief payments from Washington have raised hopes that schools across Long Island and the state can avoid some threatened teacher layoffs and other cuts.

New York allotted $3.31 billion in aid for the 2020-21 school term to the Island’s 120-plus districts under a budget approved by legislators early Friday.

Part of the money would come from federal relief money under the recently signed Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act. Allotments include $4.6 million for Brentwood, $2.5 million for Hempstead, $2.2 million for William Floyd and $1.8 million for Central Islip.

School leaders caution that the school aid increase of less than 1% for the region is based on revenue projections that are not assured, and that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has been given what some term “immense” powers to reduce aid in coming months if the money does not materialize.

Still, many educators had feared the worse.

On Monday, the Alliance for Quality Education, one of Albany’s most vocal advocacy groups, issued a statement suggesting Cuomo wanted to cut about $1.3 billion, or 5%, from the state’s school aid package. Any such move would mean “fewer teachers, fewer social workers, music and art teachers, cuts to pre-K programs, cuts to kindergarten programs, etc.,” the Alliance declared.

For many, the mood now has shifted.

“Honestly, I would say it’s more than a little bit of relief,” said Julie Lutz, chief operating officer of the regional Eastern Suffolk BOCES, referring to the unexpected flow of fresh school funding. “Nobody knew what to expect.”

Joseph Dragone, one of the region’s most experienced school business administrators, had a similar reaction when he checked the state’s allotment for his Roslyn district and found it was $7.16 million, up 1.89%.

“At this point, I’m just glad that our aid this year compared with last year is not negative,” Dragone said. He went on to note that legal language in the state spending package empowers Cuomo’s budget director to make midyear reductions in aid in certain cases.

The 0.66% aid increase projected for the Island in 2020-21 is the lowest in 10 years. It amounts to a $21.6 million aid increase and is microscopic, when compared to allotments of the past several years. The current year’s increase was $124.5 million.

The fact that New York provides any extra money at all, in the midst of an economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus, is considered significant. It contrasts with the approach taken in 2010-11, when the state was still in recovery from the Great Recession and Long Island’s schools lost $220 million in aid in a single year.

Under law, Cuomo’s budget director will assess periodically whether state revenue and spending are within projected ranges. If the answer is “no” and the budget is not balanced, the director can order reductions in expenditures, including school aid.

The first of these assessment periods runs from April 1 to April 30. Robert Lowry, deputy director of the state Council of School Superintendents, said his organization is advising its members to hold off until April 30 in making final decisions for their districts’ budgets, when they’ll have a better idea of how much state financial assistance will be available.

Districts should find it easier to delay budget decisions this year, Lowry observed. That’s because the governor recently ordered school budget voting to be moved from May 19 to June 1 at the earliest, as a health precaution.

“These are extraordinary times,” Lowry said.

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