How Hochul’s education budget proposal created chaos in one Long Island school district

Long Beach School District acted quickly to cut spending assuming the worst – that their district will no longer receive full “hold harmless” funding now or in the future.

From left, East Elementary School parents, Joanne Kapp, Meghan Curley Chapman and Ashley Burgess.

From left, East Elementary School parents, Joanne Kapp, Meghan Curley Chapman and Ashley Burgess. Liz Rosenberg

As Ashley Burgess packed up to leave for a school board meeting in late February, her 5-year-old asked, “Are you going to save our school?”

Prior to Jan. 16, East Elementary, the school Burgess’ two children attend, was not on the chopping block. Long Beach’s school board had every reason to believe their district’s state aid would be the same amount, if not more than the previous year. But Gov. Kathy Hochul’s proposed fiscal year 2025 education budget – one that both the state Senate and Assembly formally pushed back on last week – would cut the district’s state aid by 22%, equaling $4.3 million dollars. Each year, the governor unveils her proposed budget in January, and the two chambers of the state Legislature release their rebuttals in early March. The Legislative leaders and the governor then begin closed-door negotiations to settle on a budget by April 1.

East Elementary is just one of hundreds of schools across New York that was thrown into panic after Hochul announced her proposal to cut school funding for schools with declining enrollment. As parents scramble to understand the state’s arcane budget process, some school district administrators say this proposal is writing on the wall, predicting future cuts and difficult decisions even if the governor’s proposal doesn’t become law. 

“I was shocked by the reduction in Foundation Aid,” said Michael DeVito, assistant superintendent for finance and operations, at the March Long Beach school board meeting, referring to the proposed cuts. After Hochul’s budget release, Superintendent Jennifer Gallagher acted quickly. “The cuts we must make this year if this reduction in aid goes through are painful: We would need to excess many additional staff (administrators, teachers and non-instructional staff), and reduce many of our valuable programs,” reads a Jan. 24 email. She listed 17 district-wide programs that could be cut including second grade swimming and middle school electives. “The degree to which any of them would eventually be cut depends on the ultimate State Aid amount. The other unfortunate alternative in bridging the budget gap is a difficult one as well: closing East School.” Though the email includes a Spanish translation, some of East’s English speaking parents say they are concerned many of their peers, for whom another language is primary, are not fully aware of the school’s precarious position. 

One of the primary reasons legislators on both sides of the aisle oppose Hochul’s cuts is the way the budget handles districts, like Long Beach, where enrollment has dipped. “Hold harmless,” also called “save harmless,” a budget practice in existence for decades, ensures that districts receive at least the same amount of money they were allocated the year prior – regardless of enrollment declines. Overall public school enrollment continues to decline in New York, dipping to a multi-decade low last year of 2.4 million students. 

Of the 673 districts in the state that receive Foundation Aid, 50% will lose funds if Hochul’s changes to “hold harmless” stand, according to Deputy Director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents Robert Lowry. And over half of these districts will receive the maximum reduction of 50% of their “hold harmless” funds. 

“There is a discussion that needs to be had about what happens with these districts that have lost large numbers of students,” Lowry said. “And as a result may be at risk of being unable to provide an adequate education to their students, particularly at the high school level.” Increasing taxes at the local level or dipping into reserves could help fill the gap, but some districts will have difficulty with one or both of these solutions. 

“For some of the districts that are affected, it's a significant sum and it's being done rather abruptly,” Lowry said. 

Parents mobilize

At the school board meeting in February, Burgess broke down describing how much East, a pre-K - 5 school of 312 students that is a centerpiece of a residential area, means to her family. A few days later, standing on East’s nearly 100 year old steps on a cold and rainy day, she told City & State why she’d gotten so emotional. “Even my neighbors, whose children don't go to East, they understand how important it is, and how crucial it is that these kids have a sense of stability. And pulling them from their school…I have a hard time seeing how that's worth it.” Elementary-age students, like Burgess’ 7-year-old son, experienced upheaval during the pandemic, and East parents say the school was integral to helping their children heal from the stress. 

Parents have tried to fight the cuts on two fronts, in Albany and at home. They say they’ve sent thousands of letters to the governor and key legislators and they’ve asked the district to create a committee and to include parent input in budget decisions; they’ve also asked the district to explain why East – a school with 42% “economically disadvantaged” students, nearly double the amount of other district elementaries – was chosen for possible closure. Most of all, they want to know if “hold harmless” is restored, if East would be, in the words of Burgess’ daughter, “saved.” 

The answer to this question is unclear. Some members of the board and district leadership are taking Hochul’s proposed reductions very seriously, even if they do not go into effect this year. They say East’s physical plant, the oldest in their stable, is the obvious target for closure. The current plan is to keep East open for another year by dipping into reserves and possibly raising taxes if the “hold harmless” cuts are not reduced – a decision made in response to parents’ outrage at the possibility of only having a few months’ notice of closure. But new families considering East will be notified that  it might close in 2025. Parents fear being on the public chopping block could lead to teacher attrition and lower enrollment.

“You're asking really hard questions,” said Alexis Eichen Pace, a school board member, at the March meeting. “What's changed is the landscape of what we saw happen with the budget process in Albany and what we can expect over the next few years.” She said the threat of a loss of funding led them to look at East, which if closed, would save the district $4 million dollars. “My kids went to East. It's in my community too. I love the school,” Eichen Pace said.

School A and School B

Last year at this time, legislators and advocates were praising Hochul for fully funding Foundation Aid for the first time since the funding formula was enacted in 2008 – a move made as a result of a lawsuit Hochul settled. Shelley Mayer, chair of the state Senate’s Education Committee, called it a “record year.” Hochul’s fiscal year 2025 proposal does add $825 million to the overall state education budget, but the sunsetting of federal funds schools have been using for COVID-19 recovery-related programs, like summer school and tutoring, made the governor’s plan to change “hold harmless” even more of a surprise. 

“If enacted, this could leave hundreds of districts without the ability to plan for and implement appropriate transition measures to address their declining student enrollment,” reads testimony prepared by Education Commissioner Betty Rosa for a joint legislative budget hearing on the governor’s education budget on February 2. The hearing lasted nearly ten hours with most speakers asking for the restoration of “hold harmless” cuts. 

Another big request, supported by both houses in the budget resolutions they released last week, is $1 million dollars to fund a New York State Education Department study of the Foundation Aid formula that would make suggestions to revise outdated metrics, including using decades-old census data. 

Dr. Bruce Baker, of the blog School Finance 101, said the original formula missed the mark on fully funding schools. “Sound empirical analyses will likely show that New York State needs to drive more funding into high poverty, high need settings, both upstate and downstate,” said Baker, a University of Miami professor who supports the idea of a study. “Failing to conduct these analyses and continuing with the current formula means knowingly continuing to deprive children in those communities of equal opportunity to achieve common outcome goals.” But Baker sees what Hochul is trying to do. “The idea is to be able to recapture funds allocated to those who really don't need that funding (and can cover those costs themselves) and shift that funding to those who need it more,” said Baker adding a caveat. “But, they shouldn't necessarily be cutting that funding just to reduce overall education funding.” 

After weeks of pushback from legislators, unions, advocacy groups and parents, Hochul released a video that offers a positive view of the cuts to “hold harmless.” The video, an explainer, presents “School District A” in a wealthy district with declining enrollment and more than enough money in reserves to fund its “hold harmless” gap and “School District B in a working class community with lower property values, so it's tougher to support education through taxes or fundraising…They have no money set aside for a rainy day, and their student population is growing.” Graphics give the impression that a fat cat district will lose some funds and a needier district will pick up those funds. 

“There's been a 20% decline in population,” said the governor, referring to the drop in enrollment since 2008 in most of the districts impacted by “hold harmless” cuts. “Now the way this formula has been structured based on population from 2008, means that no adjustments have been made for the high-need districts, the districts with larger populations, and we're still funding everybody as if we're back in 2008,” Hochul said at a press briefing on Long Island on March 14. “That does not make sense anymore.” 

"Since Governor Hochul took office, New York has invested a record amount of funding in our schools and the FY25 Executive Budget includes $35 billion for schools – the highest total education funding in state history,” a spokesperson for the governor said in an email to City & State. “We look forward to continuing conversations with the legislature and the public about why the school aid formula must be modernized, so it serves the needs of the next generation of students.”

The depiction in Hochul’s video is an “oversimplification” according to Lowry. He said many of the districts impacted are not wealthy and do not have large reserves to make up the difference. 

Blake Washington, the state budget director Hochul appointed in July, defended the governor’s targeting of “hold harmless” and said the move is the beginning of a conversation with the public, advocates and legislators. He acknowledged that new projections of extra state revenue would probably impact how schools are funded in the state budget. “Certainly, the Legislature, leaders of both houses have said they are looking at the overall proposal on school aid,” Washington said on March 5 . “It's something at the top of their minds, so sure, modifying that is probably fair game.”

In Long Beach, East parents’ advocacy is paying off. On March 13, they received notice that some of their requests will be granted. The district will do a demographic study to see if enrollment might rebound in the future and they agreed to create a budget and enrollment related task force that will likely include representatives from East. “The discussion will continue about reducing the number of elementary schools from four to three,” reads an update shared with City & State. 

“There's a way that the teachers and admins here set up our classrooms to build up and help others…like my son,” said Joanne Kapp. “He's very behind in reading and he's finally catching up.” For Kapp and other parents at East, it’s been difficult to reconcile hearing school board members say how wonderful their school is in one breath and double down on the need to close one in the next. 

“I don't know where I would be without the school and the community that I've built here,” Burgess says.