Schools Weigh Budgets Anticipating State Aid Cuts While Budget Votes and Elections Remain On Hold

The playground at Springs School remains closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order this week postponing all school board, village board and library board elections scheduled for April or May “until at least June 1” in an executive order signed on Monday.

Locally, school district budget votes and board of education elections were scheduled for May 19, with school board candidates able to start circulating petitions as of Tuesday. The governor’s order postpones the circulation and filing of any nominating petitions for office.

The executive order also postpones the New York State Presidential Primary election from April 28 to June 23. New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. had co-sponsored a bill that would have accomplished the same change legislatively.

The governor’s order comes as school districts and villages across the state are drafting proposed budgets for 2020-21, with school districts bracing for potentially significant cuts in state aid with the economic impact of the COVID-19 virus outbreak expected to be in the billions.

Gov. Cuomo also extended school closures late last week through April 15. While President Donald J. Trump announced on Sunday that social distancing guidelines should be followed at least through the month of April, Gov. Cuomo has yet to extend school closures statewide past the middle of the month.

On Monday, the State Education Department issued a memo asking school districts throughout the state to continue to provide remote learning for students between April 1 and April 14, even if a spring recess has been scheduled.

While districts including East Hampton and Springs moved spring recess to late March following school closures earlier that month, many districts, including Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor and Southampton, still have spring recess scheduled for next week.

“The governor basically indicated that he expects schools to be in session over spring break, and a lot of districts had planned on sticking to their calendar and are wrestling with that,” said Sag Harbor School District Interim Superintendent Jeff Nichols on Wednesday morning. “Everything is evolving daily, and the district is continuing to monitor what the governor’s guidance is and hoping to come up with a decision regarding spring break later this week.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Thiele said in an interview from Albany that despite concerns that school aid could be cut as much as 50 percent, the budget he expected will be approved later Wednesday afternoon preserved Foundation Aid to school districts at the same level they received to support their 2019-20 spending plans.

In January, Gov. Cuomo proposed a $178 billion budget for 2020-21, including a 3 percent increase in education spending, but that was before the coronavirus outbreak, which has had led to revenue deficits estimated to be in excess of $10 billion.

“Generally speaking, the budget that will be approved later today for school aid will be flat, in essence the same as last year,” said Mr. Thiele. “However, the caveat to that is that we are giving the governor the ability to assess where we are economically on a quarterly basis.”

Mr. Thiele said depending on what kind of federal aid the state receives and what happens in terms of state revenue will ultimately determine what cuts, if any, are made by the governor on that quarterly basis.

“We just can’t assess that here on April 1,” he said. “So, the budget that’s approved for school aid is going to be flat, but it’s subject to change in the middle of the year, and there could be cuts at that point.”

Mr. Thiele said that while federal stimulus package includes about $1.2 billion for New York schools and colleges that will be used to backfill some of the loss in revenue, pressure will continue to be put on congressional representatives from New York to provide more funding to ensure state education aid can be maintained throughout the year.

“It’s hard to imagine under the current circumstances that there will be some kind of turnaround in state revenues,” warned Mr. Thiele.

In terms of when budget votes for school districts and villages will be able to be held, he said he expects Gov. Cuomo will issue another executive order to provide more clarity on how the state intends to deal with that given the fiscal year for school districts and villages begins July 1.

“There has to be some kind of resolution by that point,” he said. “Schools are going to need a budget one way or the other.”

In terms of village and school district trustee elections, Mr. Thiele said if those were delayed there is the ability for current members up for election to continue to serve until an election can be safely held.

He added that Gov. Cuomo is addressing school closures on a two-week by two-week basis.

“My expectation is that order for closures will be extended,” he said on Wednesday. “How far it will be extended remains to be seen. He has been deliberate in keeping his options open in obviously a very fluid and volatile situation.”

While the budget had not yet been adopted as of Wednesday morning, and more news that impacts the East End is expected to be announced later this week, Mr. Thiele said he could confirm that state funding for the South Fork Commuter Connection is in the budget, as is continued funding for mental health programming for teens through the Family Service League — a program that received funding in response to teen suicide on the South Fork. The Peconic Estuary Program will also have its funding maintained, said Mr. Thiele.

Mr. Thiele said when he had exact funding numbers for schools on the East End, he would begin reaching out to local superintendents.

Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor and Springs school boards all held budget meetings in the last week, board members, administrators and members of the public able to tune in remotely in order to adhere to social distancing requirements, but also ensure meetings remained public.

On March 25, the Bridgehampton School Board of Education received its third draft of a preliminary budget for 2020-21, although this was in advance of statements by Gov. Cuomo that state aid for districts is likely to be reduced.

The latest budget presentation proposes a $19,064,440 spending plan for 2020-21, a $374,558 or 2 percent increase over the 2019-20 budget. Increases include $93,000 in new construction operating costs, a $30,000 increase in health insurance including for new staff and retirees, $63,275 for a new teacher, $25,000 for textbooks and training for new programming and $76,268 to support retirement programs.

According to the budget presentation, the current proposal is $74,482 over the state-mandated cap on tax levy increases. Final recommendations are expected to be made to the board at its April 22 meeting.

On Monday, both the Sag Harbor and Springs boards of education held budget workshops, considering potential impacts cuts in state aid may have as they plan for next year.

The third draft of the budget presented to the Sag Harbor School Board of Education Monday called for a $44,332,423 budget for 2020-21, a reduction of $111,000 from the last draft presented to the board.

“We have been notified the state will be making state aid cuts,” said business administrator Laurie Baum. “They will not tell us how much they are cutting. It’s a guess at this point. The worst-case scenario is a 50 percent cut in foundation aid.”

Ms. Baum said the district would need to make up that revenue by pulling from its reserves and unassigned fund balance.

“The state is going to be $10 billion in the hole in response to the virus, and we don’t know what revenues are coming in this year. I would rather be prepared and if we don’t need it, we don’t use it,” she said, walking the board through three budget scenarios — two anticipating losing a large chuck of state funding with tax rates increasing at either 2.7 or 3 percent, although still below the state tax cap, which for Sag Harbor is 3.07 percent.

The next budget workshop is scheduled for April 21 at 6:30 p.m.

The Springs School Board of Education also was presented a draft budget Monday night of $30,310,156, a reduction of $258,675 from the last draft spending plan. According to the budget presentation, $108,590 in cuts were made in wages and salaries, $30,760 in tuition and $119,325 in BOCES services. As it stands, the current budget represents a tax levy increase of 2.23 percent, which is below the district’s state mandated tax cap.

The potential cuts that had the most discussion centered around the in-house pre-kindergarten program the district operates at the SYA building. The district started that program after high demand for pre-kindergarten services meant there more children than could be served at the Eleanor Whitmore Early Childhood Center, which the Springs School District contracts with to provide pre-kindergarten services.

On Monday night, Springs School Superintendent Debra Winter noted that she has applications for just 26 pre-kindergarten students next year — 54 children applied to be in the program for this year. The Eleanor Whitmore Early Childhood Center, said Ms. Winter, can accommodate as many as 32 children from the Springs School District for prekindergarten next year.

“Our original plan was to roll over what we have but when we are faced with what we are faced with, we have to make some hard decisions,” said Ms. Winter.

The Springs Teachers Association executive board filed a letter with the school district asking it not to take away the program.

“This a program that we feel prepares our future students far better than any outside daycare program,” reads the letter from the STA Executive Board. “Although it might cost more money to keep our students here, this will save us more in the future by not having to spend more money to catch them up. Students will come in more prepared and will need less services in their future. We receive $62,100 to help pay for our students. That money should go to the best possible education those students can receive. That is with our teachers!”