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Hochul's school aid reductions panned at legislative budget hearing

This file photo shows the New York state Capitol in Albany.
Hans Pennink
/
Associated Press file photo
This file photo shows the New York state Capitol in Albany.

Opposition to Gov. Kathy Hochul’s school aid reductions united Democrats and Republicans at a budget hearing on Thursday.

Legislators, including Democratic Senate Education Committee Chair Shelley Mayer, questioned state education Commissioner Betty Rosa about the impact of Hochul’s budget, which would result in 337 out of around 700 school districts receiving millions of dollars less in aid in the 2024-25 school year.

In New York, the state education commissioner does not work directly for the governor but instead answers to the state Board of Regents, which is chosen by the Legislature.

Rosa told Mayer that she and the districts were taken by surprise by some of the governor’s proposals, including a plan to eliminate what’s known as “hold harmless.” That policy has guaranteed that no school district receives less money than it did in the previous year. 

Rosa said it comes at a time when schools are already grappling with the end of millions of dollars in supplemental federal funding awarded during the pandemic.

“I think a lot of districts were caught off guard,” Rosa said. “In knowing that we're going through that process of the federal financial cliff, and then having this also happen. It's really, in many ways, has really created … distress for districts.”

Assemblyman Doug Smith, a Republican who represents portions of Long Island, said school districts that he represents are among those facing the cuts.

“This is devastating,” Smith said. “You're talking about hundreds of teachers potentially being laid off at a time where learning loss is a major issue and at a time where we're trying to expand programs to teach students to how to read properly.”

Rosa told lawmakers that the education department has been breaking down the data in Hochul’s budget. She agreed that programs that were started to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, like those addressing mental health, as well as teaching jobs would be affected if the reductions remain.

Hochul also wants to change the way the inflation rate is calculated when allocating what’s known as foundation aid for schools. Instead of relying on the consumer price index, she wants to average the inflation rate for a 10-year period, then disregard the lowest and highest numbers to come to an average rate. 

In her budget proposal, that translates to a 2.4% increase, instead of one based on the current rate of inflation, which is 3.8% from last year.

Sen. John Liu, a Democrat, asked Rosa whether the change makes any sense.

“Is there any logic to changing from a one-year basis to a 10-year basis?” Liu asked.

Rosa answered that she does not think it makes sense.

Meanwhile, Hochul is doubling down on the proposed changes, saying it’s inaccurate to call the changes “cuts.” She said the funding is lower because she ramped up school aid by $7 billion over the past two years to comply with a court order, and schools cannot expect that every year.

She said changing the school aid distribution formula and ending the hold harmless provision is simply “common sense” in the wake of declining enrollment in schools.

“Seventy-five percent of schools are not getting the same funding they got last year under this hold harmless concept, which we really need to talk about that intensely,” Hochul said on Jan. 29. “About the logic behind having formulas that are based on a run of what population was in 2008 as if there's been no outmigration, there's been no shifting, there’s not schools that have more needs, that the money should be allocated for.”

She said she believes if she “tells the truth” to New Yorkers, they will understand and support her plan.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.