School districts across the Hudson Valley and Catskills normally would be finalizing their budget plans by this time and shopping them to voters for approval at elections next month.
But Newburgh schools Superintendent Roberto Padilla and his counterparts in this region and the rest of New York are penciling in numbers and weighing multiple scenarios amid the upheaval caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The big question for them and decision-makers in Albany: Will Congress deliver aid to state governments whose revenues have plunged because of the business shutdown?
This answer was no in the $484 billion aid package approved on Thursday, although supporters in Congress still hope to secure funding for state and local governments in another round of assistance. Without that, Gov. Andrew Cuomo warned last week, the state could be forced to cut aid to public schools and the rest of the budget it just passed by 20 percent.
That would amount to a $33 million loss for the 11,600-student Newburgh School District, Padilla told school board members in a Zoom meeting on Tuesday. “That would cripple our district,” he said, while noting that Cuomo's dire forecast likely was meant to spur action and may not come to pass.
Padilla and his administration have so far suggested nearly $5 million in cuts to the $291 million budget they first proposed. Those changes include shedding positions through attrition and by reassigning staff members, but Padilla cautioned that state aid cuts may force layoffs.
“We are very sensitive to the fact of potential layoffs,” he told board members. “Every district across the state is talking about laying off personnel, and we are trying out best not to have that happen.”
Newburgh is the largest school district in Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties and relies more heavily on state aid than many other districts. State funding makes up about 57 percent of its budget, compared to a statewide average of 38 percent for all school districts, according to the state Comptroller's Office.
But public schools in general are much more dependent on state funding than local governments. The next-highest shares are the nearly 19 percent of city budgets made up of state aid and the 12.4 percent for counties.
New York has postponed the May 19 school elections until a still-undetermined date after June 1, giving school leaders some time to see how events play out before finalizing their budgets. Their first indication will come after Thursday, when the state finishes the first of three “measurement periods” to decide if cuts must be made in the spending plan adopted this month.
The timing for school districts will be tight, even with elections delayed.
The state won't announce its budget cuts until after the Comptroller's Office releases its monthly cash report on or around May 15, Freeman Klopott, a spokesman for the state Budget Division, told the Times Herald-Record last week. That date may be later than school administrators had expected as they aim to hit adjusted deadlines to finish and publicize their budgets.
Monroe-Woodbury School District, for instance, planned to adopt its spending plan by May 11, based on the premise that elections could happen as early as June 2.
Patrick Cahill, Monroe-Woodbury's assistant superintendent for business and management services, told the Times Herald-Record he is developing three potential budgets for the district, including a worst-case scenario with 20 percent aid cuts. He said cuts of that size would be devastating for most districts and were unlikely to happen.
“I'm cautiously optimistic that that will not be what ultimately happens,” he said.
Cahill said the most realistic outcome is a smaller aid reduction, which Monroe-Woodbury hopes to absorb without reducing staff or harming instruction in any other way. He said the district plans to draw more surplus and reserve funds than usual and is eliminating any new initiatives and purchases it planned for the next school year.
The last budget crisis for schools came in 2011, when Hudson Valley districts slashed jobs in the wake of the national financial slowdown. Port Jervis cut 15 positions, including 12 teachers. Rondout Valley cut 48 jobs, about half through layoffs. Middletown axed 100 positions.
In spite of the pandemic, the state budget lawmakers passed this month kept foundation aid - the main source of state funding for school districts - at the same amounts that each district got last year. But it came with the large caveat that the state could cut spending at three points over the next year if revenue falls short.
School administrators got a glimpse of the problems ahead on Friday when Cuomo projected a $13 billion revenue shortfall. He had cited that coming report days earlier when he warned of 20 percent spending cuts without funding from Washington to prop up state budgets.
“Our state forecast will project - without any federal funds, you can't spend what you don't have - if you were to allocate the shortfall relatively on a flat basis across need, you would be cutting schools 20 percent, local governments 20 percent and hospitals 20 percent,” he said. “This is the worst time to do this.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell publicly snubbed the idea of helping New York and other state governments last week, infuriating Cuomo and raising doubts about whether the Republican-controlled Senate will ever allow that aid. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-Cold Spring, said Thursday he believes enough Republicans support funding for states to build a coalition with Democrats and get it through Congress.
In the meantime, Newburgh school administrators are preparing for a third stage of budget reductions that remained completely blank in the budget outline Padilla presented to the school board on Tuesday night.
In an emailed statement to the Times Herald-Record the next day, Padilla said the district was taking a “fiduciary approach” to meet the needs of its students and the community while it awaits the aid outcome.
"We are approaching this budget season cautiously,“ Padilla said. ”There are many unknowns, and none of us have a crystal ball.“