North country schools could see millions from state budget deal

Updated: Apr. 7, 2021 at 2:19 PM EDT
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ALBANY, N.Y. (WWNY) - North country schools could see millions of extra dollars over the next three years, because of the new state budget.

The money will fulfill a promise made by state legislators and then-Governor Elliot Spitzer - but never kept - more than a decade ago, for the state to fully fund its share of the cost of public schools in New York.

Unofficially, school districts in the north country have been shorted millions of dollars - for example, Watertown more than $12 million; Massena, more than $9 million; Carthage, more than $8 million; Indian River, more than $4 million; South Jefferson, nearly $4 million; Potsdam, more than a million; Lowville, close to $950,000 and Gouverneur, more than $750,000.

“There’s really reason for celebration,” said Dr. Rick Timbs, a leading expert on school finances and Executive Director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium.

Dr. Timbs said the money - which will be paid out over three years - means “Districts may now have some of the financial underpinnings they need to provide a more quality education.”

School districts have two main sources of funding, property taxes and the money they get from Albany, what’s known as “state aid.”

As a rule, north country schools can’t raise anywhere close to what they need through property taxes, so they rely heavily on state aid.

That state aid comes in different ways: some of it pays for specific items a school district buys, like computers, or helps pay for certain kinds of debt a school district has.

And then there is what’s known as “Foundation Aid,” money that can be used for a wide variety of expenses. This is the aid the state was supposed to come up with back in the late 2000s. Instead, schools have gotten only part of what they’re owed.

Now Governor Cuomo and the Democratic leaders of the state legislature have agreed to fully pay all of New York’s school districts what they’re owed in Foundation Aid. That’s money which can help keep taxes down, fund teachers and programs.

There is one lingering question, as school districts get used to more money over the next three years.

“The problem becomes, what happens in year four? Can the state maintain this level of support?” asks Dr. Timbs.

The record $212 billion budget being passed this week contains a little something for most New Yorkers.

- Nearly five million of the state’s residents stand to get a tax cut worth $2.2 billion total.

- State workers will get the pay raises which were delayed by the pandemic.

- There is $88 million more for Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) grants, for New Yorkers going to college.

- $2.4 billion in emergency housing assistance for New Yorkers behind in their rent, and for landlords.

- $2.1 billion is set aside to pay unemployment benefits for undocumented workers.

“Just because you are undocumented, doesn’t mean we don’t care, we don’t have compassion, and we don’t want to help.,” Governor Cuomo said Wednesday. He acknowledged “It is difficult to do it in a way that can be administered without fraud.”

Cuomo said the state Attorney General has been asked to review how the program will be run, and approve it before it starts operation.

The state will pay for its new and expanded programs through higher taxes on the wealthy and large corporations, and through online sports betting, which was approved as part of the budget deal.

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