By Michael DePietro
Last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled his proposed 2021-22 executive budget for New York. His education spending plans have sparked concerns amongst local school districts that they could miss out on millions of dollars in much-needed aid.
During last week’s Niagara Wheatfield School Board meeting, Superintendent of Schools Daniel G. Ljiljanich highlighted how some of the proposed measures could negatively impact the district. His concerns were a recap of some of the discussions that occurred during the most recent Niagara Orleans School Board Association presentation, where superintendents from the group aired similar concerns to local legislators.
Among the more troubling issues in Cuomo’s budget, it was pointed out, are plans to supplant normal state education funds with federal COVID-19 relief funds. Federal funds were intended to fill the funding gap caused by the pandemic during the 2019-20 fiscal year, where many districts across the state saw cuts to aid totaling around 20%. Instead, the state is using those funds as a cost-saving measure to reduce its own education spending this year by more than $607 million.
Ljiljanich said the fees for reopening last fall cost the district roughly $1.63 million in funds it did not have budgeted. The district is also still seeking reimbursements from the state for its nutritional program, which was ramped up during the pandemic at the state’s request.
“We were asked to make sure that we would fund (the nutritional program). What some people don’t understand is that they’ve withheld some of that money that was supposed to be paid to us in the form of reimbursements for the money that we spent on food from last school year. We’re saying to the state: ‘You asked us to provide this, you need to reimburse us,’ ” Ljiljanich said.
Although the state has indicated grants the district received for the current school year will be fully funded by the end of this year, Ljiljanich said there isn’t any indication the district will see any of the direct funding that was withheld last year.
Other pressing issues for school districts are Cuomo’s plans to consolidate expense-based aid lines, something he pushed for last year but was unable to get. These line items include aid for BOCES, high tax aid, special services, hardware and technology, charter school transitional, software, library, textbook, supplemental public excess cost and academic enhancement. Such a move could potentially reduce state spending by $393 million in 2021-22. However, school officials believe the ramifications would wreak havoc.
“What he’s done is compressed all of the different amounts into one category and you’ll just get a 2% increase on that. So it has nothing to do with what your expenses really are,” Ljiljanich said.
He then floated an example using the district’s purchasing of school busses as a way this consolidation would be detrimental.
“If you just think about a $100,000 bus; when we purchased that bus, we (currently) get about $70,000 back on that bus (over 15 years). … If (Cuomo) does it this way, and you get a 2% increase on your transportation spending, just take that $100,000, and now you’re getting 2% … $2,000 versus $70,000. Buses are not an option for districts who have to provide transportation to our kids,” Ljiljanich said.
Assistant Superintendent of Finance and Management Allison Davis addressed the problem succinctly. He said, “It would be impossible for some districts down the line, us included, to be able to manage a budget because with the tax cap limitations, we can’t just tax the public for those losses and we wouldn’t have the reserves make up for it.”
Ljiljanich said the only good news so far is that feedback received during the legislative update meeting indicates legislators will try to ensure the consolidation is a “non-starter.”
The meeting presentation also included a spotlight on several services and needs that local districts are hoping legislators can secure reliably consistent funding for. Among these needs is long-term investments in technology accessibility, which Ljiljanich said has become “glaring” amid the pandemic.
“There are students who have very little access to technology, maybe zero access to a Wi-Fi connection, which puts them at a serious disadvantage when it comes to their counterparts in the academic world. We’re asking the state to invest long-term in both technology and Wi-Fi access for our school communities,” he said.
Other needs mentioned include long-term investments in school-based health and mental health services, statewide requirements for Universal Pre-K and kindergarten mandatory, and flexible pathways to graduation, among others.
“I think everyone can clearly see what the expectations are, and what the needs are for our communities. And what we’re asking from our legislators is to make sure that the monies are there and available for districts to provide what our communities expect us to provide,” Ljiljanich said.
Elsewhere, he added, “We’re happy to take that on all of these challenges. But we need to make sure that the finances are there.”