Usually at this time of year, school districts across New York State are gearing up for their annual budget and board votes. But the coronavirus has thrown a serious monkey wrench into the works.
Not only are schools closed statewide until at least mid-May — with increasing acceptance that soon the state will likely throw in the towel on the remainder of the academic year — but Governor Andrew Cuomo has ordered districts to refrain from holding budget and school board votes until at least June 1. Those votes were originally scheduled for May 19.
“We are in limbo, waiting for guidance from the state,” said Bob Hauser, the superintendent of the Bridgehampton School District, whose board is considering a $19 million budget that as of last month would have pierced the state-mandated cap on tax levy increases by about $75,000.
But that’s only if the state, which was already staring down a potential $6 billion deficit before it began fighting the pandemic, does not cut state aid. “Even a 10-percent cutback would be about $80,000 to us,” Mr. Hauser said.
The superintendent said he had two other concerns.
If the state decides to require voting by mail, that would leave a relatively tight window for district clerks to scramble to print ballots and make sure their voter rolls were up to date.
More importantly, he said if the pandemic continues and school districts can’t vote on budgets in June, their fiscal years would come to an end on June 30, leaving them unable to pay their bills.
“We would have extra cash on hand,” Mr. Hauser said, “but without an approved budget, we wouldn’t have the authority to operate and pay those bills.”
State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. said by hook or crook, school budget votes would be held on time.
“They absolutely, positively, definitely have to have a budget in place by July 1,” he said. “With regard to school board members, it’s a little less critical.”
Existing state law would allow the terms of sitting board members to be extended until an election can be held, but not so with budget votes, he said.
Mr. Thiele said it is essential that the governor’s office provide districts with timely guidance.
“School districts need to know what the process is going to be for the adoption of their budgets,” he said, “and it has to be sometime in the coming weeks — late April or early May at the latest.”
East Hampton School Superintendent Richard Burns is more sanguine about seeing his district’s proposed roughly $72 million budget passed in time, but nonetheless, he said the uncertainty and need to constantly improvise were taking a toll, from trying to maintain records of school board meetings that are being held remotely to figuring out how to get petitions to would-be board candidates.
He said he worries whether East Hampton Town, which collects and distributes taxes to the school districts, will collect enough money to meet those obligations in a timely manner. He noted that East Hampton is especially vulnerable because it collects tuition from neighboring districts that send their students to its high school.
“We aren’t certain we are going to be able to have funds available to pay certain parts of the budget,” he said. “There are so many ripple effects. The county is supposed to reimburse the towns if they are short, but who is going to reimburse the county if it falls short?”
In Southampton, Superintendent Dr. Nicholas Dyno said the School Board had already adopted a $72.8 million budget, assuming a 25-percent cut in state aid.
“We expect to have a little money left over when the school year ends, so we can make some commitments to next year’s budget or put more into reserve funds,” added Assistant Superintendent Jean Mingot.
With schools closed, the district is saving money on things like after-school activities, field trips, and transportation, he said.
Dr. Dyno said Southampton was fortunate that it does not rely heavily on state aid. “We are being told they are going to make an attempt to keep the state aid flat and plug the deficit with federal dollars,” he said. “It’s not a guarantee at this point.”
There are few if any guarantees these days, he added. “If you drive through Main Street in Southampton, you can see how many shops are closed,” he said. “We don’t know what the new normal is going to be like.”
Hampton Bays Superintendent Lars Clemensen said many districts are holding off on adopting proposed budgets until the state completes its first quarter budget review, which is due next week. At that time, the governor or Legislature can adjust the amount earmarked for school aid.
When the governor proposes a state budget in late January, school districts are usually able to assume the amount earmarked for school aid is a floor that will be adjusted upward as the Legislature weighs in, he said.
“The pandemic hit in March, but the final budget remained flat,” he said. With the costs of the pandemic eating into aid, “instead of it being a floor, that number became a ceiling that can only go down, not up.”
Mr. Thiele said school districts should prepare for a bumpy ride. “You’ve got to build contingencies into your budgets to respond to the possibility of mid-year cuts” in aid, he said. “The state can’t print money. We’ve got to balance our budget.”