The looming threat of a 20% cut in state education funding has school districts across New York anxious — but, as is often the case, it is urban districts like Rochester that stand to suffer the most.

Rochester and the state’s other large urban school districts do not levy their own property taxes, as other school districts do, instead relying almost entirely on state and federal funding. That means the state cut, while detrimental to every district, would be disastrous to Rochester, because the state money represents a higher proportion of RCSD’s operational funds when compared to other districts.

RCSD estimated a potential effect of more than $130 million in the current school year. By comparison, it had to cut $81 million from the 2020-21 budget last year in perhaps its most challenging budget season ever.

In response, Superintendent Lesli Myers-Small announced an immediate 20% cut to its own budget. No details on the cuts have been released, but such a reduction could only be accomplished with school closures and hundreds of layoffs.

“It’s not cutting to the bone; there’s no more skin, no more fat, no more bone,” School Board President Van White said. “We’re cutting to the marrow now. … We cannot tell people we can cut another 20% and everything will be OK.”

Using New York state’s basic measure of total district spending, a 20% cut would actually mean a 21% cut in RCSD’s overall budget. In Pittsford and Brighton, meanwhile, it would mean a budget cut of less than 5%.

If the 20% cut were kept in place throughout the 2020-21 school year — an unlikely scenario, but not implausible — RCSD’s per-pupil spending would be lower than that of 10 other Monroe County districts including wealthy ones like Pittsford, Brighton, Honeoye Falls-Lima and Penfield.

“These cuts are going to affect all our students (in Monroe County),” Rochester school board member Amy Maloy said. “But with the bulk of our funding coming from state aid and 20% is getting cut — I don’t think it’s rocket science to see the effect that’s going to have.

“It comes down to an unfair formula for funding our urban districts. And it’s tragic.”

Other districts have not yet reacted as drastically as Rochester. That is in part because the effect will not be as pronounced, and in part because they have fund balances to buy them time and RCSD does not.

Greece, for example, stands to lose about $100 million, or 11% of its budget. Assistant Superintendent of Finance Romeo Colilli said the district can wait until early October before beginning “serious discussions” about cuts.

Inequitable effects of COVID

The pending 20% reduction in state aid is just one of several ways in which COVID-19 and the resulting fiscal stress has fallen most heavily on New York school districts serving the most vulnerable students.

Rochester and Buffalo have both announced they will start the school year fully remote, the result of daunting logistics across dozens of schools as well as increased health risk for the mostly Black and Latino students they serve.

That decision led RCSD to lay off more than 100 paraprofessionals this week. Superintendent Lesli Myers-Small said it was because their jobs in prekindergarten classes would not be supported through state funding, though the state did not confirm that.

RCSD dedicated a great deal of energy in the spring and summer to distributing thousands of computers and internet hot spots to students and providing hundreds of thousands of meals, the consequence of a child poverty rate over 50% in the city. Suburban districts did not face the same magnitude of challenge.

Rochester students are at a disadvantage in online learning as well. Thousands of them experience homelessness during the year and a disproportionate number have disabilities, adding an extra layer of difficulty.

Parents in Rochester are less likely to be able to work from home and help teach their children; they are more likely to be classified as “essential workers” in health care or service industry jobs that increase their risk of contracting the virus.

“This crisis, as with everything in public education in the city, is really a community crisis,” said Stephanie Townsend, Director of Research and Analytics for ROC the Future. “It is not simply up to the district to solve this.”

ROC the Future’s member organizations have met to think of “tangible supports” to offer city children, Townsend said, particularly around providing safe places for students to do their work, including at city libraries.

Advocates react
Several statewide educational groups called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo this week to raise taxes in order to blunt the effect on urban districts in particular.

“Rochester is only the first district to announce the consequences of New York State withholding aid; districts across the state are facing the same impossible calculations right now,” Alliance for Quality Education Executive Director Jasmine Gripper said in a statement.

The state Education Department and Board of Regents, meanwhile, directed their lobbying at the federal government.

“Such a large cut is untenable and would have long-term negative consequences for our children with the biggest impact on our Black and Latino families, children and low-income communities,” they wrote in a statement.

The existing disparity in Greater Rochester was reinforced Thursday with the release of an updated “Hard Facts” report by ACT Rochester.

The report traces persistent inequality in all areas of life for non-white residents, with education among the most prominent.

“For every deficit indicator – poor health, poverty, unemployment, rent burdens – African Americans and Latinos have rates that are meaningfully higher than Whites,” the report found. “For every asset measure – educational testing results, income, and homeownership – African Americans and Latinos have outcomes that often are dramatically lower than Whites. … Something is profoundly wrong.”

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