Lawmakers push back against Cuomo’s proposed cuts to schools

State Sen. John Liu, chairman of the state Senate New York City Education Committee.
State Sen. John Liu, chairman of the state Senate New York City Education Committee.
NY Senate Photo
State Sen. John Liu, chairman of the state Senate New York City Education Committee.

Lawmakers push back against Cuomo’s proposed cuts to schools

Committee chairs from the state Senate and NY City Council object.
May 26, 2020

With state legislators called back to session for the first time since the budget passed in early April, avoiding deep budget cuts, particularly to schools, is at the forefront of lawmakers minds. In the absence of federal aid, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is planning $8.2 billion in cuts to aid to localities, which could include 20% slashes to education. 

“If the state of New York and the city of New York advance these painful cuts to our school system… I don’t believe we can safely reopen schools,” New York City Councilman Mark Treyger, chairman of the City Council Education Committee, said during a City & State webinar on Tuesday afternoon. At the event, lawmakers and state officials discussed what those cuts would mean for school and students, how potentially how to avoid them and new approaches to schooling in the pandemic aftermath 

Although Cuomo had said that the first round of budget cuts would come around May 15, those have still not materialized, leaving a looming shadow over schools across the state already facing uncertain futures, because of the risks and challenges of operating during the coronavirus pandemic. On Tuesday, Treyger said that implementing the necessary safety measures for schools to reopen can’t be done without proper funding. He raised the prospect of smaller class sizes as one way to help ensure proper social distancing in schools if they reopen this fall. But lack of staff would prevent schools from hiring more teachers to reduce class size. “If you’re going to advance billions of dollars of cuts … how will you achieve that goal (of reopening) with fewer staff working in schools?” Treyger asked. 

State Sen. John Liu, chairman of the state Senate New York City Education Committee, said that one of the focuses of the state Legislature is figuring out how to avoid the worst cuts to schools across the state. “Many of us in the state Senate and the Legislature, we’re saying that’s absolutely unconscionable because we cannot just throw away our future by essentially closing down schools across the state,” Liu said of Cuomo’s proposed 20% cuts to education. He admits that the state is at least partially dependent on Wasington for aid to help fill the budget hole caused by lost revenue, but said that the $61 billion the governor is requesting is “probably not realistic right now.”

But that doesn’t mean that Liu and his colleagues are planning to just let the cuts happen. “If Washington doesn’t come through, there will be significant revenue increases on the table,” Liu said. He suggested tax increases on the state’s wealthiest residents, those that have been impacted the least by the economic hardships the coronavirus crisis has caused.

In the meantime, school districts across the state are preparing to hold budget votes on June 9 with incomplete information from the state about how much Foundation Aid they will ultimately receive. State Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa said she worries about the impact the uncertainties and the pandemic will have on those votes. “If I had to predict, we’re going to have many budgets that are not going to pass,” Rosa said. “And by design, I’m worried that they’re not going to have a second opportunity.” She said that budget problems at local districts and sweeping cuts to schools from Albany will have lasting impacts on students across the state beyond just the immediate concerns and the short-term education gaps they may contribute. “I get that we’re in pain, I get the economy’s hurting,” Rosa said. “What I don’t get is why it’s always one of … the most precious area(s) – educating our future – and how we can automatically just say we’re going to decimate our future is very challenging to any educator.”

Cuomo on May 5 announced the state would partner with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to “reimagine” education, and announced members of an advisory council to do just that several days later. How exactly it will reimagine schools remains unclear. Treyger agreed that as the state and city move ahead in recovery and reopening, hopefully with school funding, leaders should take the opportunity to rethink how to approach schools, but not necessarily the way Cuomo is going about it. “We need the billionaires’ dollars, we’ll take the dollars,” Liu quipped, saying that the governor should rely on educators, not Gates, to redesign and reopen schools. 

Rather, Treyger suggested that schools in the state and city could begin to take a more holistic, community approach at a time when so many vulnerable students’ lives have been upended. He said that schools have long provided safety net services for such students, and it’s time that investments are made to strengthen those social services. “So that’s how we look at this moving forward – if we want to recover New York and recover in a safe and smart, responsible way, you invest in your school system,” Treyger said. “And you make sure every school becomes a community school that serves the needs of our children and our communities.”

Rebecca C. Lewis
is a staff reporter at City & State.