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Statewide school budget votes come at a time of uncertain funding

ALBANY — Tuesday’s school budget votes across most of the state will be like none before, built on an uncertain revenue figure with votes cast by mail as a precaution against spreading the COVID-19 virus at the polls.

“The stakes are particularly high this year,” said David Albert of the state School Boards Association. “There really is a lot on the line.”

A major challenge this year is the uncertainty of funding. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is hoping for another federal stimulus package for state and local governments that lost billions in tax revenue during the pandemic. But if a federal stimulus doesn’t come through for state government, Cuomo said he may have to cut state school aid by up to 20% as part of deep reductions in state spending.

A decision by Congress may not come until after the July 1 start of the fiscal year for school districts.

“Some districts assumed reductions from what was in the state budget, others did not,” said Robert Lowry, deputy director of the state Council of School Superintendents. “You might assume an average cost, but there have always been quirks.”

Most districts have proposed flat or near flat budgets, with a typical 2% growth in tax levies, which can roughly translate to a similar increase in tax bills, according to a state School Boards Association survey. Some districts have included cuts of up to 10% or 20%, while hoping federal aid could ease or erase the reductions. Many districts are also drawing down on reserves, school officials said.

“The best-case scenario is they will get flat state aid, but potentially it’s much worse,” Albert said.

Congress gave school districts in the state $1.1 billion in federal stimulus in March. In April, Cuomo and the legislature adopted a state budget that used that money to replace funding for schools planned for the state budget. That replacement freed $1.1 billion for other areas in the state budget, including mounting health care costs because of the virus.

But if Cuomo doesn’t get the additional federal funding he seeks to fill the state’s $13.3 billion deficit, he said he will cut school aid during the academic year to help balance the state budget. After school budgets are in place, districts can’t further raise taxes until the following fiscal year, beginning in July 2021. So schools would need to make up any state aid cuts with their own spending cuts, use of reserves, borrowing or a combination of all three, school officials said.

Any state aid cut would come as school districts contend with extraordinary expenses because of the virus, which will require changes in classrooms and structure to maintain social distancing and other precautions, Lowry said.

The result is that schools face steeply rising costs and the potential for plummeting revenue.

“There’s a lot of concern by school districts about a cut of 20 percent or anywhere near that,” said Brian Fessler, director of government relations at the state School Boards Association.

Andy Pallotta, president of the New York State United Teachers union, said that if the federal stimulus money doesn’t come from Washington, “then it’s long past time that policymakers ask the ultrawealthy to pay their fair share toward education … our position is clear: No state cuts without raising revenue from those who can most afford to pay their fair share.”

Under Cuomo’s May 1 executive order, all voters for the first time will receive ballots mailed to their homes so they can avoid lines and gatherings at polling places that could spread the COVID-19 virus. The mail-in process has proved costly for school districts and has resulted in isolated cases of misprinted ballots, some sent to the wrong districts, and a short turnaround for some voters to mail ballots in time to be counted by Tuesday at 5 p.m., school officials said.

Cuomo’s executive order also moved the school budget votes from May 19. If voters reject a budget on June 9, there likely won’t be enough time to try another vote for a pared-down budget allowed by law in time for the July 1 start of the schools’ fiscal year. If a budget is rejected, a district operates under its prior year’s spending plan.

“I suspect this is going to be something of a mess,” said E.J. McMahon of the fiscally conservative Empire Center think tank.

“There is nothing that involves more money and bigger tax burden than this,” McMahon said. “The government’s approach to this has been to put the districts on the spot and it has added some confusion needlessly.”

“It’s going to be really, really interesting,” he said.

State & Region