The proposed New York state budget being voted on in Albany this week includes the biggest increase in school funding in years. But the applause is muted in many local school districts where educators and taxpayers are headed into a dicey two months coping with a new property tax cap as they prepare and vote on their own spending plans.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Senate and Assembly majorities drew raves from some school advocates when they agreed to spend 4 percent more this year on schools, an $805 million boost in aid that currently totals about $21 billion after three years of cuts or flat funding.
The state budget expected to be voted into law by Friday also includes a potential long-term fix for the annual conflict over school aid. Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos agreed on a law that ties expenses to the inflation rate, which is designed to drive similar annual increases in future years.
"Governor Cuomo and the state Legislature earn straight A's for a school funding increase, an on-time state budget and two-year predictability," said Timothy Kremer of the state School Boards Association. "Still, many school districts will continue to face dire local budget consequences this year and into the future."
Robert Reidy of the state Council of School Superintendents called the budget "a promising turning point for schools." But, he noted, "Superintendents, school boards and local voters still face tough choices in assembling local budgets for the next school year."
School boards and, on May 15, their voters will face the problem of trying to rebuild after tough recessionary years. They also face for the first time the 2 percent cap on property tax rate growth passed in Albany last year. School boards will have to decide if they need to risk raising taxes at a rate beyond the cap, which would require the support of 60 percent of their voters to be approved under state law.
School districts say the coming aid increase doesn't compensate for the $1.3 billion cut a year ago, or the $1.4 billion cut the year before that, or the flat budget the year before that, although temporary federal stimulus funds softened those blows a bit.
"This budget does not keep up with the problem created by Albany's policies," said Billy Easton of the Alliance for Quality Education, a school aid lobbying group funded by education foundations and teachers unions. "We are moving in the wrong direction ... our schools are getting worse, not better."
Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto dismissed Easton's comment as coming from "a lobbyist for an organization funded by the teachers' union. So what would you expect him to say?"
"What about responding to the facts?" Easton responded in a separate interview.
On Tuesday night, the Utica Board of Education adopted its proposed budget. The spending plan anticipates the 4 percent state aid increase and eliminates 217 jobs, including 36 elementary school teachers, 11 math teachers, three assistant principals and three administrators. The budget has a 2 percent tax increase and stays within the cap approved last year by Cuomo and lawmakers.
"We're all in the same boat," said Robert K. Libby, superintendent of the Cohoes City School District in Albany County.
Libby said his small city district will get a $500,000 aid increase for his $38 million budget, which just about covers the added cost of employee pensions. With the aid increase, he said the district's budget will still be $1.5 million smaller than it was two years ago.
Now, Cohoes plans 35 more layoffs after 25 last year and 11 the year before in the 2,000-student district.
"We're finding we are running into walls," Libby said.
The state School Boards Association will do its annual survey of proposed school budgets in April, but the early indicators show districts planning layoffs, cutbacks or elimination of music, art and sports as well as pre-kindergarten, summer school and some bus runs.
"It's what we have," Skelos said Wednesday. "The bottom line is we are keeping our budget at the 2 percent level that we are asking all other levels of government to do ... We're satisfied with what we're doing."
"We are very happy that we are able to add an additional $200 million into the budget for schools," Silver said of money Cuomo had hoped to set aside for competitive grants to improve school performance. "We have long advocated for more resources for our neediest schools."
But for now, schools that are being portrayed as some of the biggest winners in the state budget aren't feeling so lucky.
Kathleen Scales, who said she's a grandmother from Albany, went to the Capitol to protest with Easton. She said she's worried about larger class sizes and a loss of pre-K for her grandchildren.
"I come here angry, I come here disgusted," Scales said.