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Educators: Cutting state school aid by half would decimate local districts

Regent Roger Tilles speaks to members of the

Regent Roger Tilles speaks to members of the New York State Board of Regents on Feb. 10 in Albany. Credit: Hans Pennink

Cutting state aid funding in half for schools would devastate local districts, educators said Sunday, after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said he may be forced to do so if the state doesn't receive federal resources to offset losses due to the coronavirus.

The impact would fall especially hard on school districts that rely heavily upon state revenue for most of their budget.

"While I think this is a very conjectural statement, it might be a real problem for schools most in need of state aid who might have a majority of their funds for schools cut off and would have real difficulty in opening at all," said Roger Tilles, Long Island's representative on the state Board of Regents.

The Roosevelt School District — among the poorest on Long Island — relies on state aid for 80 percent of its budget and such a cut would be "catastrophic" representing a loss of about $34 million, said acting Superintendent Eve Demyen. 

"We wouldn't be able to function," she said, adding the district just had to trim $2.1 million from its budget. "If they cut our state aid by 50 percent, we will have class sizes of 70 students in a class — that is not even physically possible … We couldn’t give the kids one-tenth of the quality education that they need."

Speaking at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research in Manhasset, Cuomo said the federal government is failing to give any resources to states as it considers another massive bailout that provides relief, in part, for small businesses. New York has a deficit of $10 to $15 billion, he said, adding there could be cuts to hospitals too.

"I don't have any funding to do what I normally do," he said. 

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Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said state aid for K-12 education is about $30 billion.

“There is no denying that the simple arithmetic is grim. The deficit could be $15 billion. School aid is 27% of total state spending. How much, if anything, could be cut now from health care, the next biggest spending area?” Lowry said.

The group is joining with others nationwide to urge federal leaders to allot for $500 billion in assistance for state governments and public schools.

Robert Dillon, superintendent at Nassau County BOCES said such a loss in state aid would be "devastating" and would lead to cutting staff and programs. All options — including rescinding the two percent tax cap that was signed into law in 2011 and limits the amount that districts can raise through property taxation to 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower — should be considered before gutting public school aid, he said.

"Everything should be on the table," he said.

An official with Cuomo's office said the governor "has been very clear that the middle of a public-health crisis is not the time to be raising taxes. While we encourage localities to stay under the permanent property tax cap, there is and always has been a mechanism for school districts to go over the cap.”

Joseph C. Dragone, Assistant Superintendent for Business and Administration for the Roslyn district, said "almost 80% of a school budget is salaries and benefits for staff, this would most certainly mean larger class sizes, loss of instructional programs, and rollbacks in our attempts to increase safety and security."

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