Schools facing budget doubts

Norwood-Norfolk Central School District. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

As school districts across the state prepare for a July 1 start to the fiscal year, financial uncertainties loom as they draft budgets based on the state’s 2020-21 budget passed April 3.

The New York State School Boards Association began analyzing the state’s proposed education funding in February, and the $826 million increase in proposed school aid from last year represents less than half of NYSSBA’s $2.1 billion request.

Of the state’s total $177 billion budget for the coming year, $27.9 billion accounts for school district funding, only slightly more than the current year.

About $1.1 billion in state aid has been cut as part of the budget’s “Pandemic Adjustment,” a move to deal with the state’s financial challenges associated with the COVID-19 crisis. That $1.1 billion reduction is expected to be covered by federal stimulus dollars, but federal relief beyond next year has not yet been formulated.

“The new state budget offers level funding for public education, at least for now, which is probably about the best school districts could have hoped for at a time when the state faces a potential $15 billion budget deficit.” NYSSBA Executive Director Robert S. Schneider said on April 3. “As bad as the damage could have been, it’s hard to be too optimistic when schools face the prospect of future budget cuts that would force them to make a number of difficult choices in the coming months, as the state reassesses its financial condition on a rolling basis for the remainder of the year.”

The process of making those “difficult choices” has placed added stress on north country school boards, with meetings and budget workshops held virtually, schools remaining closed through the end of the academic year and the State Division of the Budget reevaluating funding allocations based on state revenue every few months.

“This is not business as usual,” Mr. Schneider said in April. “Nor will it be for quite some time.”

School districts in St. Lawrence, Jefferson and Lewis counties share a common perspective: educators and administrators are “preparing for the worst and hoping for the best,” Joshua W. Hartshorne said.

Mr. Hartshorne, Watertown City School District business manager, said the district has worked to save in some areas — travel expenses and overtime pay, for instance — but that “everyone still needs to be able to go back to work.”

“State aid is not immune to coronavirus,” he said, adding that the district had hoped to increase information technology funding but may need to reduce what it had budgeted for IT, depending on how the state makes education funding cuts throughout the year.

Indian River School District Business Manager Audrey Stevenson and Potsdam Central School District Superintendent Joann M. Chambers both said the novel coronavirus pandemic has left districts dealing with several unknowns.

Since Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo issued an executive order last month delaying school budget votes and board member elections until at least June 1, district administrators are waiting to hear when and how public budget votes can take place.

Guidelines from the state about school district voting procedures — traditional in-person voting, or other, socially-distanced means — have not yet been issued.

Some school districts in the region have approved their proposed budgets internally but have not been able to bring budgets to taxpayers for their vote.

Watertown City School District approved a $77 million budget for the coming year during its April 23 virtual meeting; General Brown School District, Dexter, approved a $24.3 million budget with a 5.4 percent tax levy increase during a virtual meeting on April 6; and Norwood-Norfolk Central School officials approved a $24.6 million budget with a zero percent tax levy increase on April 20.

Other districts have held off approving 2020-21 spending, citing prolonged uncertainty and anticipation of the state releasing new information about potential cuts based on the Division of the Budget’s first period of revenue and expense review, which began April 1, and ended April 30. Additional reviews are set to take place in June and December.

Lowville Academy and Central School District has not yet adopted a budget, though budget planning had concluded before the New York State on PAUSE order took effect in March.

“Now, with the uncertainty of the state budget and the vagueness of the exact date for budget votes across the state, we are thankful we did not approve a budget ahead of time,” Lowville Superintendent Rebecca Dunckel-King said. “Our perspective is that if we can make patient decisions based on the most up-to-date information from the state, then we will be better stewards of our taxpayers’ dollars.”

Following months of budget work in an effort to address a loss of $333,000 in anticipated revenue, the Canton Central School District Board of Education created a budget committee at its April 20 virtual meeting, at the request of Superintendent Ronald P. Burke.

“We are getting lots of information coming in from Albany — some of it is not good, the rest of it is terrible,” Mr. Burke said. “It really becomes important that, over the next couple weeks, board members are completely involved right from the get-go.”

Based on New York Open Meetings Law, a group of five or more board members meeting at once requires the meeting to be open to the public. Due to the state’s PAUSE order and social distancing guidelines, meetings can be considered “open to the public” if they are accessible through video or phone conferencing, with minutes and transcripts also made available.

Mr. Burke argued for the creation of the budget committee as a transparent entity, with all available board members participating and working through a proposed budget that “doesn’t have any fluff in it,” with little margin of error for special education funds and strategic adjustments to consider.

“If there are cuts that have to be made, people will know it’s been transparent, that it’s been discussed and that there’s been a rationale for whatever decision comes out,” he said.

The board decided to meet as a full group and held its first budget committee session on April 27, where Mr. Burke presented several budget scenarios he has worked on with Canton Central Business Manager Denise J. Folsom.

Notice of any additional Canton budget committee sessions has not yet been issued.

School districts expect to receive information from the state about the April review period — if or how local aid is to be adjusted — by May 15.

Times staff writers Rachel Burt and W.T. Eckert contributed to this report.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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