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Looming state aid cuts amid pandemic have school officials worried

Ron Masera, president of the Suffolk County School

Ron Masera, president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, pictured on Thursday. Credit: Raychel Brightman

Warning signs that public schools could potentially lose hundreds of millions of dollars in state financial aid are raising fresh challenges for Long Island educators, already tasked with the job of reopening classes safely in the midst of a pandemic. 

With the first school openings barely two weeks away, many local school administrators say signals from Albany of a possible 20% aid reduction are deeply disturbing. Any such cuts would most likely fall hardest on poor systems heavily dependent on state support, local leaders add. 

Meanwhile, school leaders are taking a practical approach, buying additional masks, sneeze shields and hand sanitizers, and hoping for the best. 

"Whether this is your third year in education or your 30th, this is the most challenging that any of us have faced," said Ron Masera, president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association. "We want to remain optimistic."

Masera is the schools chief in Center Moriches, which like many other districts is scheduled to reopen Sept. 8, after closing down in mid-March. A few systems have announced earlier openings, among them Great Neck and Jericho, which plan Sept. 3 starts. 

Potential aid cuts come as no surprise. In April, the State Legislature gave Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo authority to withhold payments to school districts, colleges and universities, in the event that was needed to balance the state budget.

The concept became a reality earlier this month, when the Budget Division disclosed in a quarterly statement that it had begun withholding aid to localities, including $324 million for K-12 school districts. The Cuomo administration calls the 20% withholding a "temporary" solution to managing cash flow, until Congress and President Donald Trump come through with more aid for states.

Many educators worry, however, that withholdings will grow larger in September and eventually become permanent, as more school-aid payments come due. Some school leaders have gone so far as to warn that withholdings could disrupt efforts to reopen classes. 

"We'd have to work magic to open safely" if state aid is cut by 20%, said Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Malverne schools and a past president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. Elementary classes in Malverne are due to start Sept. 9, and middle- and high school classes are to start Sept. 10. 

For the Nassau-Suffolk region, the stakes are high.

Area schools had planned to spend about $13.4 billion in the fiscal year that began July 1. Of that amount, about $3.3 billion was to have come from state aid. Reduce that by 20%, and the bicounty area loses about $660 million, or about 5% of total school revenues. 

In Washington, congressional Republicans and Democrats appear to remain deadlocked on such questions as whether federal relief money should go to all public schools, or just those that physically reopen. 

"It's a disgrace," said Tony Felicio, president of the Connetquot district's 625-member teacher union. "While Congress is on vacation, sitting at home, we've got parents and teachers here who still have questions about school health and safety, academic plans as well."

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