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‘DEVASTATING’: Massive state aid reductions force districts to weigh program cuts, bigger classes, and possible mergers 

  • / Updated:
  • Josh Durso 

Hammondsport Superintendent Kyle Bower says under normal circumstances — if state education aid were going to be reduced — district leaders across New York would’ve found out in October or November. That time would’ve allowed administrators across the board to plan before the proposed budget was released by Governor Kathy Hochul.

Fast-forward to the announcement that school districts like Hammondsport were going to see a 31% reduction in their state aid and the feeling was shock. There wasn’t any warning; and that $1.6 million reduction is the tip of the iceberg. Penn Yan, Watkins Glen, and South Seneca school districts would see $1.6-2.2 million cuts if the budget is adopted as proposed.

Republican lawmakers have made their opposition to these cuts loud-and-clear. “The Governor’s education proposal can’t stand,” State Sen. Tom O’Mara (R-58) wrote in a column earlier this month. “The property tax increases required to ameliorate these cuts would be prohibitive. As I’ve stressed time and again, New York State has been steadily moving closer to the edge of an economic and fiscal cliff — due in large part to the spending appetites of former Governor Cuomo, Governor Hochul and, since 2018, the Democrat controlled, biggest spending Legislature in state history.”

The state budget has grown by roughly $60 billion since 2018; and while there is a lot of politics mixed in with O’Mara’s statement — there is a fiscal cliff coming for school districts. “This is a devastating amount of money,” Bower recently explained on an episode of Inside the FLX. “To lose $1.1 million in one year — that’s a lot of people, a lot of programs, and a lot of services — or a roughly 16% tax increase to our property owners. All of those scenarios are very harmful to our community.”

Bower says local legislators — Republicans who represent the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes — have been supportive of their concerns. But, he described the current situation as feeling ‘arbitrary’. He says the state has told school districts that drops in enrollment and increases in property value are two major reasons for the aid reductions. Thinking back to 2020-21 — aid reductions of this value were discussed — but ultimately argued because of pandemic-related economic losses. In the years that followed — until the Governor’s proposed budget was unveiled — no mention of cuts were made.

“It’s just not a position to put a school district — when you have 30-45 days to put together a budget to survive the next school year, and provide the services and programs your students need to be successful,” Bower continued. For perspective, he said Hammondsport could eliminate it’s entire sports budget, all extra-curricular programs like drama club, National Honor Society, etc., and it’s entire transportation budget — and those three things together, which total a little less than $1 million would still not close the gap created by this proposal.

“You can’t stuff 40 students in a classroom, but you’d end up really narrowing at the high school level,” Bower explained of the cuts that would be necessary, and have a direct impact on student life. The reality of executing on a 30% reduction in state aid would result in a ‘very narrow’ high school experience for students. “You’d end up really creating a narrow high school program that’s just basically ‘Here is what you need to graduate’,” he explained. “You’ll get reading, writing, math, social studies, science — only the core classes that you need in order to get your basic regents diploma; and all these other activities and electives — AP courses, college courses, career and technical education courses that the Governor is stressing — couldn’t be offered.”

As if that isn’t enough — school districts like Hammondsport are already facing uncertainty as they stare down mandates to transition to electric buses beginning in 2027. For Bower, he called it ‘extremely challenging’.

“The Governor’s office is putting out obstacles that are going to make it extremely challenging in the years to come for small rural school districts to exist,” he said. “Regionalization seems to be the way of the future, and these decisions are continuing to nudge school districts in that direction.”

This sentiment was echoed in a recent interview with Auburn Superintendent Jeff Pirozzolo. For years he’s called on school districts of all sizes to start looking at mergers as a way to better serve students. “It’s inevitable. We’re going to end up getting there,” he said referring to the likelihood of county wide school districts in the coming years. “When parents are going to start complaining because class sizes are 30 or more, and the district can’t afford more teachers. That’s where you’re going to start seeing administrators and educators say ‘OK, now we have to do something different’ to get class sizes back down.”