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Hochul proposed the biggest education budget ever. North Country educators are cautiously optimistic

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In her recent budget address, Governor Kathy Hochul announced a record $31.5 billion in school aid, for the 2023 school year. If passed, that will be the highest level of education state aid ever. It’s about a 7% increase from 2022.

Historic budget has many educators sighing in relief

"Like most educators, I was very pleased," said Stephen Todd, the district superintendent of the Jefferson-Lewis-Hamilton-Herkimer-Oneida BOCES. "This is my 29th year in education. And I can tell you, this scenario, where the governor's proposal is just what we asked for, is not always what we have seen."

Todd said that former governors often proposed education budgets that fell far below what education organizations asked for. The New York legislature would then "bargain" them up, so this is nice, says Todd.

"We’re glad that we’re at a place where we’re not starting the budget discussion playing defense."

It's also a far cry from just a decade ago, where there were many lean years after the 2008 recession, which resulted in drastic budget cuts and the loss of many school programs.

Foundation Aid, a promise finally fufilled

One of the big ticket items of this year’s budget is that Foundation Aid will be fully funded. That’s the yearly base of state aid given to schools, and it’s calculated to give poorer districts more state money.

"On its simplest level, it is designed to be a progressive system of school funding that provides more money for districts that need more money to work with their kids because their own communities do not have as large a tax base," explained Todd.

Todd says most North Country school districts heavily rely on Foundation Aid. "In reality, we are not a wealthy part of the state. Foundation Aid is is critical."

The Foundation Aid formula has been around since 2007, but because of the 2008 recession and subsequent budget cuts, it's never been fully funded, and it was actually frozen for many years, until now. Some districts will see pretty considerable jumps, said Todd.

"I have some districts that will get increases that are more than 20% year over year. Districts like the Watertown City School District, which is getting more than a 20% increase. They were among those that were heavily underfunded over the years."

Struggling to keep up with inflation

Districts that are already fully funded under Foundation Aid will receive a 3% increase. That’s not huge, but it is very much appreciated, said Jennifer Gaffney, the superintendent of Sackets Harbor School District in Jefferson County.

"We're happy to see an increase, and not the same budget, or a decrease," said Gaffney. "Three percent right now is generous."

At the same time, Gaffney said districts are experiencing "some hardships related to inflation and rising costs in all areas of our operations." They need to account for pay raises for teachers, and higher prices on "pretty much everything we’re looking to purchase for the '23-'24 school year. We're talking food for the cafeteria. We're talking institutional paper. We are talking fuel prices."

She’s says a 3% bump will be quickly absorbed by the current inflation rate of 6.5%, and that she doesn't anticipate having anything leftover.

Other big investments in the proposed budget include $100 million earmarked for post-pandemic mental health and academic supports, and a 13% increase in Pre-K funding, which should provide free Pre-K for about another 17,000 children in the state.

Gaffney says that’s really exciting, but she was disappointed to see that the allotment for pre-existing programs is staying the same.

"The state is not giving districts any more than they did initially," said Gaffney. "And the cost of Pre-K programs has progressively risen throughout the school years. And now we are finding ourselves in a position where we're having to absorb more and more of that cost... it's really putting a strain on our overall budget."

Somewhere between a boom and a bust

That budget strain is something many districts will face, said Dale Breault, the district superintendent for the Franklin-Essex-Hamilton BOCES. That’s because of inflation, but also because of the teacher shortage, which he said has only gotten worse. "Schools are competing for the same resource: teachers," said Breault, and that's driven up starting salaries.

"Which is great for our teachers. And you know, frankly, they deserve much more than we can ever give them," said Breault. "But at the end of the day, that also puts a strain on budget."

Breault said anything extra in district budgets will go towards academic interventions and mental health resources.

Even that’s tricky because all schools are looking for the same people. He said counselors and social workers are nearly impossible to find. "So even if we wanted [or had the money] to bring those people on board, a lot of times they just don't exist."

Now that Foundation Aid is fully funded... what next?

Breault says that if Governor Hochul's budget goes through, and all schools are fully funded under the Foundation Aid model, there’s an elephant in the room: how will future funding increases be doled out? What happens next year?

"It's kind of the proverbial dog that catches up with the mail truck. What happens next?" said Breault.

Foundation Aid is designed to give more to less wealthy schools, so "are we just gonna give everybody a percentage increase next year?" asked Breault. "Because there's a lot of experts out there that will say that applying the same percentage to every school district across the state creates one of the most inequitable situations possible."

Breault said he’ll be pushing legislators to ask that question, to get some sort of clarity on what future funding will look like. He and other educators will be making requests and asking questions as the the NYS Senate and Assembly work on their version of the budget in the coming month.

The budget deadline is April 1.