New York lawmakers gathered in Albany Thursday for a joint hearing on the state’s education budget.
Members of the state Education Department were on hand to testify, and as expected, much of the conversation surrounded the governor’s proposal to end "Save Harmless," also known as "hold harmless." It ensures that districts don’t receive less Foundation Aid funding from one year to the next.
New York state Education Department Commissioner Betty Rosa expressed significant concern over the governor’s plan to do away with "Save Harmless" and the establishment of an inflation factor of 2.4% for Foundation Aid. She emphasized that any plan to end "Save Harmless" must be phased in to give districts time to adjust. She also reiterated that the Board of Regents’ request for $1 million to overhaul the Foundation Aid formula was the appropriate vehicle to have such a discussion, and could address fiscal concerns.
“You heard us talk about having a longer runway and a deeper opportunity to create a plan,” she said. “Having the opportunity to get the support and funding to take a look at the formula and having the opportunity for our stakeholders and experts in the space to come up with a three to five-year plan.”
Gov. Kathy Hochul’s budget director Blake Washington doubled down Thursday, insisting that now is the time to make adjustments.
“Inaction for another year is always easier, having a debating society for another year is always easier,” he said “The governor wanted to take on a hard fight and call to question, at a time when we’re paying $35 billion for school aid, are we investing it in appropriate ways?”
The Hochul administration has made it clear that they don’t feel that continuing to fund schools at levels that don’t account for population loss is appropriate. Washington told reporters Thursday afternoon that 75% of districts that would be affected by the change have experienced population loss of 20% or more.
“Are we giving it to the areas that need it the most, are we giving it to areas that are growing in size?” he said.
Republicans blasted the effort and highlighted estimates by experts that more than 300 districts will be impacted. Some lawmakers came with statistics at the ready, listing out districts they represent that would lose funding.
“The governor has championed fully funding Foundation Aid and now this budget pulls the rug out from under school districts by taking back from that,” state Sen. Tom O’Mara told Spectrum News 1.
Democratic lawmakers far from endorsed the proposal, joining Commissioner Rosa in questioning the timetable specifically.
“It’s too hasty,” said state Sen. John Liu. “It’s something that if done properly should at least have a three to five year phase in or phase out.”
Rosa said that she recognizes decreasing enrollment is an issue when it comes to funding, but it isn’t the whole picture.
“We acknowledge the enrollment decrease, but we acknowledge that the needs have increased and in fact that there are different ways we’ve learned through the pandemic of addressing these issues,” she said.
There's a strong indications from lawmakers and those on the front lines that they would like to see the "Save Harmless" decision reconsidered through the negotiating process, with Washington telling reporters that they are ready for a discussion, they just don’t want to wait years to have that discussion.