How state budget, federal stimulus affect schools in Rochester area, across NY

Justin Murphy
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

It may not feel like it just yet, but school districts in the Rochester area and across New York are about to enter a period of plenty.

The state budget that Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed this week includes more than $3 billion in new education spending, some of which is only the first installment on a multi-year commitment to fully fund the state's long-dormant foundation aid formula.

At the same time, the federal government sent $12 billion to New York schools between a pair of stimulus plans.

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The result for Monroe County is $611 million in new funding for school districts. That sum represents nearly a quarter of local districts' total budgeted figures for 2020-21.

The Rochester City School District is the biggest beneficiary, taking in $284 million in federal stimulus money plus $84 million in new state funding.

"The new state budget delivers great news for New York’s school districts, putting our public schools in a vastly better position than we would have dared to hope for last summer or fall," Charles Dedrick, Executive Director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said in a statement.

Foundation aid formula restored

Brighton High School

The progressive foundation aid formula, enacted in 2007 in response to a lawsuit filed 14 years earlier, was put on hold almost immediately after it was agreed upon.

As time went on, the money each district received bore less and less resemblance to any discernable logic. Brighton, for instance, long pointed out it was among the districts most short-changed compared to what the formula promised.

The Legislature this year agreed to phase it back in over three years, directing billions more in funding to districts across the state. Brighton, Pittsford, West Irondequoit and Penfield are among the districts seeing the greatest year-over-year growth in state aid.

West Irondequoit Assistant Superintendent of Finance James Brennan said some of the apparent state increase is not all that it seems; he focused instead on the foundation aid increase in particular.

Nonetheless, Superintendent Aaron Johnson said: "It's a good problem to have, isn't it?"

"It's something we didn't totally expect, but it gives us an opportunity to (improve) our financial sustainability," he said.

One-time stimulus

The state budget increases do not include the federal stimulus money, which is more targeted toward districts with poor students. 

RCSD, for instance, will receive a total of $368 million in federal and state funding. That is about 40% of its entire 2020-21 budget and will serve to forestall budget cuts next year.

"This budget recognizes and addresses the fiscal needs of our District and invests in the formulas necessary to give students a fair, sound, and equitable education," the district said in a statement. "These meaningful investments will go a long way to serving the best interests of Rochester’s scholars."

Much of that money will be used for summer and remedial programs intended for children who did not fare well during the pandemic, whether they were fully remote or partly in school. That includes both academic and social-emotional impacts.

At the same time, West Irondequoit's Johnson said, districts will continue to invest in HVAC and other capital improvements, or pay for the ones they already made. Taxpayers will be spared increases to the levy they may otherwise have faced.

"We always have to think: 'If something doesn't come through as far as funding, what will we have to reduce?'" Johnson said. "It's a point of pride for our district, the high quality education our students receive. ... This refreshes our ability to (maintain) that versus what we knew two months ago."

Contact staff writer Justin Murphy at jmurphy7@gannett.com