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Lawmakers Seek Education Funding As Cuomo Demands Federal Support

School bus
Pat Bradley/WAMC

As high-need school districts begin to see devastating impacts of a 20 percent cut in state aid due to the coronavirus pandemic, state lawmakers are trying to find ways to redirect funding to struggling schools.

Local school districts this week revealed to parents and staff the startling effects of a 20 percent cut in school aid under Governor Andrew Cuomo.

In Schenectady, the city school district is faced with a possible $28 million loss in state funding. The district would need to lay off more than 400 employees and move grades 7 to 12 to online instruction, among other changes, to make up the difference.  

Albany city schools could see 222 layoffs and a similar fate of moving more students to online instruction.

The cuts in aid under Governor Cuomo have an outsized impact on high-needs districts whose budgets are more dependent on government aid.

In a WAMC interview, Albany city schools superintendent Kaweeda Adams cited a report by the Alliance for Quality Education.

“A 20 percent in state aid to schools, holistically, equals about $5.7 billion. Four billion of that would come from 205 of the high-needs districts and that includes us.”

State lawmakers are pitching ideas for how to funnel more money into public education.

New York State Senator Jim Tedisco, a Glenville Republican whose district includes the City of Schenectady, wants to redirect money from the state’s economic development projects – long a target of GOP lawmakers.

Tedisco, a former teacher, points to a recent audit by State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli that found despite millions of dollars of Empire State Development funding, selected high-tech projects have not met their employment targets over the years.

“It’s the largest pork barrel member item that any single governor has ever received to pay out to these regional organizations. And the comptroller said, ‘we’re not getting the jobs as we pay out this pork barrel money.”

Democratic State Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara of Rotterdam authored a bill that would increase the share of New York State Lottery revenue to support education – up an additional 30 percent from the current one-third that was directed as education aid in 2017-2018.

“The lottery has continued through all this. There is funding, there’s revenue there. And with my bill these funds can be immediately diverted to public education,” said Santabarbara.

Santabarbara, whose 111th district includes parts of Schenectady, says his bill could raise up to $2.4 billion – $18 million for city schools.

Albany State Assemblywoman Pat Fahy, a former Albany school board member, says she is a sponsor of several revenue-raising bills. But the Democrat warns that the legislature may not be able to act quickly enough with schools just days away from welcoming back students.

“I hope we will be addressing them in the next couple months to try to raise more revenue, but it doesn’t address the immediate problem, and the immediate problem is a desperate need for funding from Congress,” said Fahy.

Governor Cuomo has repeatedly asked the federal government for months for an aid package to support state and local governments, as the state faces what he says is a more than $14 billion deficit this year alone.

The Democrat-controlled U.S. House passed the HEROES Act in May, which would provide support money for state and local governments. The Republican-led Senate introduced the HEALS Act in July, but the chambers remain at an impasse.

On Friday afternoon, Democratic Capital Region Congressman Paul Tonko held a virtual press conference with  education and union leaders to put pressure on Republican leaders.

“We need to move forward. The school systems are in a critical month. We should have had that assistance months ago.”

A statement from Cuomo spokesman Freeman Klopott says of Congress, in part: “whatever funding – if any – it ultimately provides will determine the level of funding available for the schools, hospitals, police and fire departments, and services that support our most vulnerable neighbors in New York State. Once the State has clarity from Washington, if necessary, we will develop a formal spending reduction plan for the legislature’s review that takes district need into account.”

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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