New York's school districts are counting on a major infusion of federal aid to states and education to prevent debilitating cuts to staff and programs — at a time when schools are remaking education on the fly in response to the coronavirus crisis.


Educators are warning of the kind of public school retrenchment that came during and after the Great Recession.


"Without federal assistance, schools are in a world of hurt," said Michael Borges, executive director of the Association of School Business Officials of New York


The problems are many.


Districts are trying to create budgets for the 2020-21 school year without knowing when public budget votes will take place, how much state aid they may lose, when schools may reopen, or what kind of academic and mental-health supports students will need in the year ahead.


Budget votes have been pushed back from May 19 until sometime after June 1, but education groups are calling for the cancellation of votes in districts that plan to stay under their property-tax levy caps.


Gov. Andrew Cuomo says that schools could lose 20% of their budgeted state aid, and perhaps more during the year, if the feds don't provide enough money to close New York's $13 billion revenue hole.


As a result, school officials across New York have been sending desperate letters to their members of Congress, backing proposals that would send hundreds of billions of federal dollars to states, local governments and schools across the U.S.


Needier districts that rely more on state aid could be hurt worse by across-the-board aid cuts than districts with more property tax wealth.


New York doles out more than $28 billion a year to schools, by far the most per capita in the nation.


"What's at stake for us? Total devastation," Yonkers Superintendent Edward Quezada said.


For Yonkers, the state's fourth-largest school system with about 27,000 students, a 20% cut to "foundation aid," the primary form of state education aid, would mean losing $42.6 million.


The district's proposed $661 million budget already faces a $22.5 million budget deficit.


"Let's not allow this pandemic to become punitive," Quezada said. "If our children don't have the teachers and support staff they need, drop-out rates will rise. It will take a long time for urban communities to recover."


In Rochester, the district's finances are a mess, with a plan to cut nearly 350 positions, or about 9% of the district's employees —and that's before any additional state aid reductions.


New schooling, uncertain costs in NY


The new school year, which begins July 1, is coming fast.


School districts are following Cuomo's day-to-day announcements and outlining potential layers of spending cuts, depending on how much state aid they lose.


Cuomo said the cuts to schools will depend on whether Congress approves a bailout for states. He and the National Governor's Association are seeking $500 billion from Washington.


When asked Sunday how deep of cuts schools can expect, Cuomo responded: "Call Washington."


Cuomo said any broad reopening of the economy after May 15, when the current stay-at-home order ends, will need to include schools.


"You couldn’t really get to a maximum phase two without opening schools," he said Sunday.


"The question on schools is going to be do you reopen for the rest of the school year and then there’s going to be a question, many local school districts are talking about summer school. They’re contemplating summer school to make up for some of the lost time."


Cuomo's budget director, Robert Mujica, said the upcoming financial plan for the state may include up to 20% reductions to schools


"We’ll release a plan by the middle of May that still gives time for the school districts to make their budgets," he said.


When asked how school budget votes may be held, Cuomo responded, "I don't know. We haven't gotten there yet."


How districts may respond to the budget uncertainty


It's not even clear when districts must finalize budgets.


They normally need about 45 days to take required steps, like scheduling a public hearing, before holding a public vote. But the state may have to shrink this timeline.


That's one reason school groups want to reduce the need for voting.


"Given the circumstances and need for social distancing, school boards should be allowed to adopt budgets if the district stays under their tax cap," Borges said.


The state's fiscal outlook is so dire that districts ought to be preparing for long-term spending cuts, said Rick Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, a coalition of over 400 districts seeking more equitable school funding.


"We're looking at a multi-year problem, so you have to plan for long-term cuts," he said. "But we're trying to plan for a time period when schools will do things like we've never done them before."


Districts are planning for an eventual reopening of schools that could require split-schedules, longer school days, additional bus routes and other costly measures to keep students physically apart.


They may also need more custodial staff to disinfect schools, support staff to help students cope with the social and emotional cost of the COVID-19 crisis, and additional training for teachers to improve online learning that will continue.


But it could take months to outline so many new costs, even if schools don't reopen until the fall.


Busing is a huge challenge. Some districts have ended contracts with private companies to save money, while others are continuing to pay bus companies to keep them in business and ensure transportation is there when needed.


Other expenses are lurking:


Cuomo has talked about expanding summer school, but hasn't said who will pay for it.


Districts' required contributions to employee pension funds could soar over the next few years because of the downturn in the stock market.


Lots of applications for tax refunds could be coming. "If businesses don't open soon, imagine the tax certioraris we're going to get hit with," said Rockland BOCES Superintendent COO Mary Jean Marsico.


Staff raises on the table or not?


In most districts, staff salaries and benefits account for about 70% of costs.


So districts may well seek union givebacks on salaries and benefits in order to minimize the cutting of staff and programs.


In 2010-11, after the recession, union locals in at least 200 of the state's 700 districts agreed to concessions like salary freezes and higher insurance contributions, according to the state School Boards Association.


The Empire Center for Public Policy, a fiscally conservative think tank in Albany, is calling for a two-year freeze of public-sector pay, saying it would save $1.9 billion in state and local costs in fiscal year 2021.


"I've been reading letters from superintendents to [congressmembers], and they don’t include any discussion about cost controls," said Ken Girardin, the Empire Center’s policy analyst. "They have been completely absent from the conversation."


Some districts will likely seek union givebacks, but it won't be easy, Timbs said.


"Unions have spent 50 years negotiating these salaries and benefits, so they're not just going to give them up," he said.


NYSUT, the statewide teachers union, has been focused on calling for federal aid and state taxes on the "ultrawealthy."


A NYSUT spokesman, asked about the possible need for union givebacks, said the focus right now is on seeking the necessary funding for schools.


Gary Stern has worked at The Journal News/lohud for over 30 years, and is now an editor/reporter focusing on, but not limited to, education. Reach him at gstern@lohud.com. Twitter: @garysternNY