Governor Kathy Hochul released her executive budget proposal last week, a spending plan that’s receiving mixed reviews from local school district leaders.
Overall, Hochul’s state aid increase of 10 percent to $34.5 billion was welcomed by the School Administrators Association of New York State (SAANYS), as was the inclusion of a $2.7 billion increase in Foundation Aid, originally designed over a decade ago to ensure districts with greater need received a bigger piece of the pie.
Among the other aspects favored by the SAANYS in the governor’s presentation on Wednesday, February 1 was a commitment to increase focused aid for school-based mental health care and expanding funding for pre-kindergarten and corresponding childcare.
School districts are hopeful that, as has often happened in the past, the State Legislature will add to education aid figures before the state budget is finalized.
District leaders across the Hudson Valley spoke to Hudson Valley One about what the proposed numbers mean as they continue putting their 2023-24 spending plans together.
Kingston City School District
Kingston City School District (KCSD) Superintendent Paul Padalino has long been a critic of how the Foundation Aid formula is applied to small city school districts. In Gov. Hochul’s executive budget, Kingston would see its Foundation Aid increase by 13.78 percent, an increase of almost $8 million to $65,323,992. The increase was anticipated, Padalino said, but it’s still not where it should be.
“We did get a significant increase in Foundation Aid,” Padalino said. “But we still think that number is low when it comes to small city schools. It doesn’t measure the needs of small city schools and the challenges we face. I think that the Foundation Aid formula itself needs to be reformed, recalculated and rethought.”
Elsewhere, Kingston would also see increases in total aid of 15.83 percent, or $13,115,043. Universal pre-k aid would also get a boost, from $1,684,612 in the 2022-23 run to $2,322,738; as would BOCES ($6,209,189, up from $4,459,886) and transportation ($7,335,122, up from $5,975,210).
Padalino said he expects the KCSD’s allowable tax levy increase to be around 3.6 percent, but said it’s unlikely the district will ask for that much from local taxpayers.
“That’s steep,” he said. “But the (School) Board has a history of not going over the limit, and also trying to look at going below the limit.”
Padalino added that district administrators plan to bring different budget scenarios to the School Board soon. As trustees discussed during a late-January meeting, those scenarios may include keeping some of the programs initially funded by federal COVID aid, and getting rid of others that may be past their prime.
“The budget is complicated and simple at the same time,” he said. “It’s a complicated formula and complicated math, but it’s pretty simple: It’s what are you putting in and what are you putting out?”
Saugerties Central School District
Like his Kingston counterpart, Saugerties Central School District (SCSD) Superintendent Kirk Reinhardt wasn’t surprised by the figures in Gov. Hochul’s spending plan. And on the surface, the numbers are good for Saugerties.
The SCSD would receive an overall increase of 12.43 percent in total aid, or $2,819,726. Their Foundation Aid would rise by 5.43 percent, or $900,205. Saugerties could also see increases in universal pre-K aid ($762,339, up from $448,382) and transportation ($2,991,593, up from $2,249,247.) But Reinhardt cautioned that many of the aid projections in the governor’s executive budget are projections based on what the district might spend, and figures like transportation aid are based on how much they’ve spent before.
“Listen, we’re happy with the numbers,” Reinhardt said. “If that’s what it comes to with the budget and everything passes, that’s a good thing.”
Reinhardt said the SCSD’s recent closure of Mt. Marion Elementary School to meet falling enrollment numbers, helped them get on financial track, particularly after the first round of federal pandemic aid ends in September.
“One of the benefits of the redistricting is getting ourselves in a fiscal spot where we feel much better about the future,” Reinhardt said. “We are going to continually look at grants and other ways of funding some of those positions that we added due to COVID. But we knew this was coming, and we looked ahead and said, ‘What will this look like this year? What will it look like three years from now? What will it look like five years from now?’ And there are some things that maybe we’re going to try and figure out a way to keep around, or integrate into what we already do.”
New Paltz Central School District
Superintendent Stephen Gratto is just a month into his time leading the New Paltz Central School District, but he’s already had a chance to familiarize himself with what the district’s state aid has looked like in the past, and what Gov. Hochul’s executive budget might mean as school officials continue building their 2023-24 spending plan.
“My initial reaction was that it could have been worse,” Gratto said. “We got a larger than usual (overall aid) based on recent history, and a little larger than usual bump in our Foundation Aid, and that was very helpful.”
Under Gov. Hochul’s plan, New Paltz would receive a 5.93 percent boost in total aid, an increase of $1,100,776. The district’s Foundation Aid would rise 4.23 percent, or $451,860. Their universal pre-K funding would also increase, from $1,358,611 in 2022-23 to $$2,044,446 next year.
“We’re pleased that we have a little bit of help, and again, it could have been much worse,” Gratto said.“It’ll make things easier, but not easy. It might soften the blow a little bit, but there are definitely some difficult decisions ahead for us. We are optimistic that we can put together a fiscally responsible budget that will keep our students learning.”
Onteora Central School District
Of all the local school districts, Onteora’s increases in the governor’s plan are the lowest, with Foundation Aid coming in at 2.99 percent higher, or $227,703; and overall aid rising just 0.62 percent, an increase of $65,448.
“We were and continue to be disappointed in the state aid runs,” said the Onteora Central School District (OCSD) Superintendent Victoria McLaren. “An increase of 2.99 percent in Foundation Aid does not even remotely cover the impact that inflation has had recently. This is a very small increase in revenue overall for Onteora.”
McLaren described Onteora as a district that has the perception of wealth, but with many families who struggle to make ends meet.
“We are different from other districts in Ulster County in many ways,” McLaren said. “While our students and their families have been increasingly negatively impacted by the economy, the ratios that New York State uses to calculate the wealth of a district shows that our district is considered wealthy. Using those measures, the state justifies not increasing our aid as much, but with the tax levy limit in place we cannot raise our tax levy above the limit as dictated by the calculation. Thankfully, we have always maintained our finances conservatively and have managed to serve our students well. This is becoming more difficult each year.”
While the OCSD would see some aid increases in Gov. Hochul’s executive budget, there are notable decreases as well. Transportation aid was $407,972 in 2022-23, but would drop to $312,140 next year. Software, library and textbook aid would also decrease, from its current year total of $100,061 to $98,847.
Like other districts, Onteora is grappling with the end of the first round of federal COVID stimulus funding, but not just because they may lose programs and initiatives that have helped students over the past few years; they’re also unsure they’ll be able to use all of that funding before the deadline passes.
“We tried to use much of the stimulus money on non-recurring costs so that we would not experience a large negative impact to the budget once the funding went away,” McLaren said. “Currently the biggest challenge many districts are facing is spending the money provided by those stimulus packages in the necessary time frame due to the state of the economy and supply chain issues.”