With Katonah-Lewisboro and Bedford Central school districts gearing up for budget season, the issue of state aid is at the forefront of many people’s minds. As part of the planning process for the 2021-22 New York state budget, Sen. Pete Harckham recently held a series of meetings with school board officials and school administrators. “We have a lot of concerns in the education budget,” he said.
In an interview with The Record-Review this week, Mr. Harckham, who represents Senate District 40, discussed school finances and other major challenges he sees facing state government, local communities and individual constituents. He also previewed how he plans to address these issues and support New Yorkers as they struggle with the year-old public health crisis, unemployment, weak business conditions and mounting fatigue of fighting COVID-19.
The foremost issue right now facing state legislators, he said, is “COVID, COVID, COVID.” The pandemic, Mr. Harckham said, has impacted just about every facet of life — joblessness, small business growth, public health, education, and especially finances.
When the pandemic hit last year, schools received help from the federal government with additional expenses through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. However, in an effort to balance the state budget, Gov. Andrew Cuomo deducted the amount allotted to each school district through the CARES Act from its anticipated state aid.
“It wasn’t necessarily used to help us or to cover those expenses because it was actually a wash in the governor’s budget,” said Cynthia Hawthorne, assistant superintendent for business and administrative services in BCSD. In an interview this week, she said state aid for the district’s 2020-21 school year was reduced by approximately $609,000. In January, the federal government announced another COVID-19 stimulus package, including the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act. Ms. Hawthorne said the CRRSA appropriated BCSD $1.8 million but, she added, “state aid used it as a local district funding adjustment and for Bedford, deducted the same amount from our state aid.” Once again, Ms. Hawthorne said, “it’s a wash. There’s no extra money from the federal government — it’s basically, once again, helping to balance the state budget.”
The district is required to submit a grant application to the federal government if it wants to recoup the money for expenses related to COVID-19, but Ms. Hawthorne said that could entail a lengthy process to complete the reimbursement. The application submitted for last year’s incurred costs has yet to be approved, she noted, which does not bode well for recouping federal aid for the 2021-22 academic year. Given recent discussions in the district, as well as remarks by President Joseph Biden, about getting students back in the classroom, district expenses for extra safety protocols are only expected to go up. “That will cost more money, certainly, to do it safely,” Ms. Hawthorne said.
Mr. Harckham agreed that Mr. Cuomo’s use of the CARES Act funding to “supplant state money, rather than supplement,” is not ideal. He said the policy “kind of sets them up for a fiscal cliff,” he said, referring to the school districts.
School funding is further hampered by Mr. Cuomo’s 2% state spending cap and his efforts to consolidate state aid for schools. For example, the governor wants to reduce the amount of money the state reimburses school districts under the School Tax Relief program. Typically, STAR recipients pay less on their property tax bills and then the state reimburses the districts for the difference. But this year, Mr. Harckham said, the governor’s executive budget cuts the reimbursement to districts by $1.3 billion, leaving school districts to either raise local property taxes or cut spending to offset the loss of the STAR reimbursements.
“Things like that have made it very difficult. So, our position is that on the revenue side and the spending side, we need to increase the cap, so that we have a larger and more dependable funding stream for education,” Mr. Harckham said. He also believes there will be bipartisan support for a tax on incomes over $1 million in the budget, to help increase revenue for school districts. “We cannot constantly live on austerity and expect our kids to get the education that they deserve,” Mr. Harckham said.
Mr. Harckham’s district includes the towns of Pound Ridge and Lewisboro. The Town of Bedford is served by Sen. Shelley Mayer, who represents Senate District 37.
The senator said there is also mounting concern over the level of state aid for local governments. The governor, he said, has proposed taking funds for the Aid and Incentives for Municipalities program out of the county share of sales tax. “That’s just a cost shift, and then takes money out of our county’s pockets,” Mr. Harckham explained. Also under consideration is the cancellation of funds for severe weather repaving, as well as a 5% decrease in funds directed to the county for community mental health organizations. To counteract the impact of these cuts, among others, Mr. Harckham has proposed a series of legislative actions. To help reduce the public sector workforce, he and Assemblyman Tom Abinanti introduced legislation that provides temporary retirement incentives for certain public employees, which will help towns offer workers early retirement and save on employee costs. He also mentioned legislation sponsored with Assemblyman Steven Otis that would earmark up to $100 million of federal disaster relief funds sent to the state for an emergency small business grant program.
In January, Mr. Harckham was also behind a bill to legalize Accessory Dwelling Units across New York state. By giving homeowners the opportunity to create ADUs, the bill will allow homeowners to bring in extra rental income while also creating new affordable housing without significantly changing the character of a neighborhood. “It begins to finally chip away at that exclusionary single-family zoning mentality,” Mr. Harckham said.
With an April 1 deadline for finalizing the state budget as mandated by New York’s constitution, there is a short timeline for deliberations. Debate on the budget will conclude in the Senate and Assembly by early March. Based on their separate and joint deliberations, the two houses reach agreement on spending and revenue recommendations which are reflected in amended versions of the governor’s proposed appropriation bills and related legislation and approved by both houses. The governor must then approve or disapprove all or parts of the appropriation bills. He can also use the line-item veto to disapprove items added by the Legislature while approving the remainder of the bill.