NY Regents call for state to restore school district dollars lost in ‘pandemic adjustment’

In all, the Regents are asking for about $1 billion more than what districts received in school aid in the last budget cycle.

Albany statehouse.
The New York State Board of Regents asking the state to fund school districts at pre-pandemic levels. Above, the state capitol in Albany. (Chalkbeat file photo)

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo crafted a budget for this fiscal year, he created a “pandemic adjustment” — cutting state education dollars by more than $1.1 billion and replacing that money with federal coronavirus relief dollars. Now the New York Board of Regents wants that $1.1 billion back, according to a budget proposal presented Monday.

The board, which oversees state education policy, said that the federal money was supposed to supplement funding, not replace it, since districts across the state faced costs related to the pandemic — from the technology needed for remote learning, to the masks and cleaning supplies needed to return to campus.

It’s an ambitious ask during fiscally grim times. As the state faces a projected $15 billion deficit, Cuomo has warned that school districts and other services could see cuts of up to 20% if more federal stimulus dollars do not come. Even with help from Congress, the governor has said the economic fallout from the coronavirus means the state will likely need to raise taxes.

The Regents budget proposal for fiscal year 2022, which starts April 1, 2021, calls for schools to receive $28.4 billion. That includes the “pandemic adjustment” dollars that have been allocated, with 40% of those dollars going to districts before next fiscal year so they can begin using the extra money as soon as possible. In all, the Regents are asking for about $1 billion more than what districts received in school aid for the current fiscal year.

“We are focused on ensuring districts across the state have the flexibility to educate and provide the social and emotional supports our children need during these tumultuous times as we continue to work to bridge the digital divide and ensure all students in every part of the State have access to a high-quality education,” Interim Commissioner Betty A. Rosa said in a statement.

In years past, the Regents have asked for substantially more than they receive. In 2019, for example, schools received a $1 billion increase — about half of what the Regents had requested.

Breaking with typical proposals, the Regents have not asked the state to increase Foundation Aid, the formula that sends extra money to districts with high-needs students and makes up the largest chunk of state money that schools receive. The Regents’ budget request typically focuses on increases to this formula, as they and district leaders have long insisted that the state owes districts billions of dollars through this formula. 

As they do annually, the Regents are also asking for funding separate from state aid, including $8 million in grants to organizations that would help students and families navigate remote learning, including with internet service and technical assistance.

Here’s what to look for as the new legislative session gets underway next month. 

How will the state fill the budget hole for schools?

The budget will be the hottest topic when state lawmakers start a new legislative season next month, with big questions about how to fill the multibillion-dollar state budget gap and continued uncertainty over whether more federal help will come.

A growing contingent of Democratic lawmakers and unions back the idea of increasing taxes on millionaires and billionaires to raise needed funds. Upper Manhattan Democratic Sen. Robert Jackson, for one, has proposed raising taxes on the ultra-wealthy in order to boost Foundation Aid. Cuomo and some business leaders have bristled at the proposed increases, arguing that it will cause the state’s highest taxpayers to flee. 

On Monday the governor said it will be too difficult to craft a state budget or decide on a tax increase without knowing how much additional federal coronavirus relief is coming. 

“So we tell schools, now we’re going to cut your budget 20%, we tell hospitals, we’re going to cut your budget 20%, we tell cities we’re going to cut your budget 20% — they will then turn around and fire people. They have to,” Cuomo told reporters. “Who do we want them to fire now? School teachers? Essential workers who are doing the vaccines? I mean, who can we lose right now?”

How would cuts be distributed?

When state lawmakers approved Cuomo’s “pandemic adjustment,” districts with the highest share of low-income students took on the largest burden of cuts, according to two previous analyses. That raises questions about what happens if further cuts are on the table. 

In their proposal, the Regents asked that any future reductions be progressive, with affluent districts taking larger cuts than their poorer counterparts who rely more on state money. The Cuomo administration has said that district needs would be considered with future cuts, but has not elaborated. 

Will districts be forced to make their own cuts?

The Regents proposal is a primary step in a long process to a final budget, so it’s yet to be seen. Local governments and school districts have faced their own budget deficits and financial challenges this year. Some districts in New York, anticipating state cuts, laid off staff this fall. New York City, facing its own budget deficit, cut hundreds of millions of dollars from professional development for teachers, certain extra services, and some student programs.

Layoffs are off the table this fiscal year for 80,000 teachers and thousands of other schools staff represented by New York City’s teachers union. But that moratorium won’t extend to next fiscal year, which starts July 1, 2021, unless an additional $5 billion in aid comes from Washington, or if New York City receives state permission to borrow money.

Alex Zimmerman contributed.

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