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Education officials, lawmakers push back at Gov. Hochul’s school aid proposal

Commissioner of Education and president of the University of the State of New York Betty A. Rosa, during a state's Board of Regents meeting Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022, in Albany, N.Y.
Hans Pennink/AP
Commissioner of Education and president of the University of the State of New York Betty A. Rosa, during a state’s Board of Regents meeting Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022, in Albany, N.Y.

Top education officials and state lawmakers are pushing back against a plan by Gov. Hochul to rework New York’s school funding formula.

The proposal would scrap a provision that guarantees school districts at least the same aid as last year and calculate inflation differently, changes that the governor’s budget director defended as “common sense.”

But both state education Commissioner Betty Rosa and local schools Chancellor David Banks, joining several lawmakers and advocates who have railed for weeks against the plan, went on the record at a legislative budget hearing Thursday opposing it.

“We do not support this,” said Rosa, who testified she was not consulted on dropping the so-called “hold harmless” provision ensuring districts with declining enrollment do not lose aid.

“It’s been so abrupt, and the conversations have not taken place.”

The state’s school funding formula provides money to districts based on several factors, including enrollment, student need and district wealth, with the ultimate goal of sending resources to cities and towns that need them the most.

The 337 school districts at risk of budget cuts without the measure are mostly concentrated in rural areas of the state.

If Hochul’s plan is approved without changes, the state would use a 10-year average inflation rate, rather than that of the prior year, in the formula. Banks said he opposed the new calculation.

The city’s public schools expected an additional $130 million from the state next year if not for the change, officials said. The system is also facing a $1 billion fiscal cliff with the expiration of federal pandemic aid.

“Any loss of funds severely affects us,” said Banks. “And particularly when you couple that with the fact that as stimulus funds are running out, and the city is facing tremendous fiscal challenges, it’s all of these things happening at the same time. And so it does require us to make very difficult choices.

Chancellor David Banks
New York City Department of Education Chancellor David Banks. (Barry Williams for New York Daily News)
Barry Williams for New York Daily News
New York City Department of Education Chancellor David Banks. (Barry Williams for New York Daily News)

“You’re talking about really tough choices around programs that people love, and that make a real difference in the lives of kids.”

While potentially not the full amount anticipated, city schools will receive at least an additional $342 million, or a nearly 3% increase, next year, according to budget documents.

Despite the strong pushback, many education officials and advocates are actually in favor of changing the formula in different ways.

The state Education Department again this session is asking for funding to study how it allocates school aid, a process that currently uses census poverty data from the turn of the century. Rosa asked for three to five years to develop a new formula before cutting the budgets of hundreds of districts.

“A lot of districts were caught off guard,” the commissioner said. “This has really created the kinds of distress for districts that now they have to rethink [various] issues.”

“You’re going to look at staffing. You’re going to look at services, particularly for special needs and English language learners. You’re going to look at those mental health services that you’ve put in place. You’re going to look at those [learning loss] resources that you’ve been using to … continue to bring the kids up.”

The governor’s Division of Budget Director Blake Washington in an op-ed Thursday defended Hochul’s track record, during which education funding has reached record highs and outpaced the country.

Hochul’s proposed $35 billion for public schools includes a new $825 million investment. And “exponential increases” over the last few years have grown school district reserves, Washington said, reaching $1 billion in surplus reserves that exceed statutory limits.

“As more districts are ‘held harmless’ by this provision — thereby disregarding the Foundation Aid formula — fewer state resources are ultimately available to students in high-need school districts, or for districts that are growing in size … At a time when hard decisions are required to close a significant budget gap, these factors must be part of the equation.”

“Instead of asking the question, ‘how much more money are our schools getting?’; it should be ‘why do we have a formula that forces us to pay for students that don’t exist?'”

The proposal has been blasted by Democrats and the GOP alike, who have seized on the issue to rally against what state Senate Republicans have called the New York’s “deep-rooted fiscal irresponsibility.”

“I just want to put on the record,” said Sen. James Tedisco (R-Saratoga and Schenectady), “that I and my conference are not going to go quietly into the night if this or any other budget tries to balance itself on the backs of our kids, their education, their future or the taxpayers of New York state who are going to have to make up the difference.”

A final state budget is due by April 1.