How Hochul’s budget plan could affect rural New York schools

Although it has only 215 students, kindergarten through 12th grade, Franklin Central School is the heart of its northern Catskills community.

The three Main Street restaurants in the town of Franklin, New York, depend on the business of students, staff and their families to stay afloat, and nearly every community event (from the annual senior luncheon to the farmers) are carried out with the help of student volunteers.

“The village and the school just intertwine,” said Amanda Groff, 44, who has three children enrolled in the district. “I can’t imagine one without the other.”

But the school’s future is uncertain, its superintendent, Bryan Ayres, said in an interview. A new budget plan announced by Gov. Kathy Hochul earlier this year could cut Franklin’s state aid by nearly $1.3 million, more than 12 percent of its total budget. Ayres worries about having to lay off high school teaching staff and send older students to schools in neighboring districts if the cuts are approved.

About half of New York school districts would see reductions in funding under the plan, according to state projections. Some are wealthy suburban districts in places like Westchester County and Long Island, but many are low-income rural districts that are less able to fill budget gaps with property taxes.

Leaders of rural districts across the state said the new plan would mean many rural students would end up with fewer opportunities than their suburban or urban counterparts as schools are forced to cut staff, after-school programming, course offerings and beauty programs. Arts. .

The cuts were included in the $233 billion spending plan Ms. Hochul unveiled in January, which would alter the Foundation Aid formula, the complex method New York uses to determine how much state aid is distributed to individual school districts. . The plan requires approval from the state Legislature before it takes effect.

The updated formula would change how the state considers an area’s cost of living. Currently, the state allocates aid based in part on what it cost to live in a given area during the past year. Ms. Hochul has proposed using the average cost of living over the past 10 years, which would result in all districts receiving less aid than previously anticipated.

The new plan would also end a decades-old practice known as “hold harmless,” which ensures that school districts receive at least as much aid each year as they did the year before, even when enrollment declines. Hochul has said the policy is illogical.

“Why are we funding a program for kids who aren’t there?” he said during a press conference in February.

There are hundreds of school districts in New York state, and state officials say only a small fraction are rural districts that will have their budgets significantly cut.

Officials note that many districts, including small districts in the New York City suburbs that serve large minority populations, for example, will benefit from the changes as more funds are directed to them. Many of the districts, including some in rural areas, have seen enrollment skyrocket in recent years and are considered “high needs” based on the number of students who come from low-income homes, English language learners or have disabilities.

Ms. Hochul’s budget plan also includes $100 million in supplemental funding for school districts over the next year. The governor and state legislative leaders will negotiate how that money will be disbursed before the Legislature votes on the proposed budget plan later this year.

A spokesman for the governor, Avi Small, said school aid had increased statewide since Ms. Hochul took office and that “her budget proposal continues these record increases while right-sizing funding for districts that have experienced significant population loss over two decades. “

Many of New York’s rural districts have seen significant drops in enrollment in recent years, a trend that experts say has also been seen nationally. Several district leaders said they had long anticipated that their state aid would eventually begin to reflect those losses.

But the severity of Hochul’s proposed cuts surprised them, they said.

Kathleen Bressler, superintendent of the Sullivan West School District in Sullivan County, said learning that her district could lose nearly $2 million in one fell swoop made her feel physically ill and that it would be nearly impossible to decide where to cut.

“Anything we decide to do reduces opportunities for kids,” Bressler said, adding, “nothing is off the table with a $2 million cut.”

Determining how to distribute aid to education is complex and has driven debates in numerous state on how to equitably fund rural schools, where there are typically fewer students and Costs per student may be higher. than in urban and suburban districts.

In rural areas, schools are often community centers and one of the largest employers, experts and district leaders said. Rural schools also often provide physical and mental health care in areas where access to those resources may be limited.

The extracurricular activities offered in the Marion Central School District, about 40 minutes from Rochester, are some of the only social opportunities available to families locally, said its superintendent, Ellen Lloyd.

If the state implements the updated formula, Marion Central would lose $1.2 million in state funding, Lloyd said, and would need to cut much of its nonacademic programming.

“I feel like we work hard to make sure our kids have an equitable experience,” she said. “This, in my opinion, is going to be less equitable.”

Foundation Aid is based on numerous factors, including the number of students enrolled in a particular district, their level of need, and the overall wealth of the area. The formula also uses, in part, a district’s income tax base to estimate its ability to generate local revenue.

Rural district leaders are particularly concerned about this last piece of the formula if the “hold harmless” policy ends. Median income has soared in some rural communities where wealthy New Yorkers sought refuge during the pandemic. But district leaders say they can’t necessarily translate that additional wealth into more money for schools.

That is because state property tax cap law Restricts districts from increasing annual tax rates by more than 2 percent or more than the inflation rate, whichever is lower. Districts would need a supermajority of local voters to approve raising property taxes above the tax cap, an unlikely scenario.

Several district leaders said the tax cap would prevent them from generating more than $100,000 to $300,000 to offset cuts to their budgets.

Any increase in wealth would have to be particularly extreme to significantly affect state aid, said Blake Washington, the state’s budget director.

In Franklin, which is in Delaware County, they have been. In recent years, more than half of students have qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, a federal measure of poverty. But total revenue in the district tripled between 2020 and 2021, going from $49 million to nearly $150 million, according to Ayres.

The cuts may seem harsh, Hochul said when he unveiled his budget, but they are crucial to addressing the state’s $4.3 billion budget gap and maintaining the state’s fiscal health amid skyrocketing Medicaid enrollment and a crisis migratory. New York significantly increased school aid in recent years at rates that were not sustainable, she said.

“As much as we want to, we won’t be able to replicate the massive increases of the last two years,” Hochul said in January.

Many districts also have much more money in reserve than is legally required, Hochul said. Several rural district leaders said they would dip into reserves, but said most of those funds were allocated for specific purposes such as workers’ compensation, capital projects or bus transportation.

The cuts come at a difficult time, district leaders and experts said. Federal aid to education during the pandemic era is scheduled to end this fall. Schools are trying to address pandemic learning loss and also address state initiatives, including overhauling their reading instruction.

Karen Hawley Miles, executive director of the nonprofit Education Resource Strategies, said all the financial challenges school districts were facing added up to “a once-in-a-generations moment.”

“Putting this change into effect now and at this time is really very difficult,” he said. He said many states had been moving in the opposite direction, putting more money into schools.

Washington, the budget director, said the governor was “very aware” of the financial challenges facing school districts and rural districts in particular. The goal of the plan was to start a conversation about how districts could be more fiscally responsible, he said, adding that Ms. Hochul was open to changes.

“We know that this is a disruptive proposal. It’s intentional,” she said, adding that the budget is not set in stone. “We look forward to working with the Legislature to smooth out the rough edges.”

In Franklin, Ayres said he feared the cuts could lead to additional enrollment declines and funding cuts. In the worst case, tuition and state aid would skyrocket until the school would eventually be forced to close.

Meg Shivers, 52, whose son attends Franklin and whose daughter graduated last year, grew up in the nearby village of Treadwell and watched it change after her elementary school closed.

“You don’t see schoolchildren riding bicycles on the sidewalks. You don’t hear the kids playing,” Shivers said. “Nothing remains.