Federal, state aid helped many NY schools relieve fiscal stress in 2021

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Handmade signs welcome students back to school at Binghamton High School. (Megan Zerez/WSKG)

ITHACA, NY (WSKG) — On the whole, school districts across New York state last year did slightly better financially compared to 2020, according to an annual report from the state comptroller. School districts got a big lifeline during the pandemic — an influx of federal COVID aid and more state aid, called foundation aid.

Districts are already planning for the next few school years. BOCES accountant Kathy Blackman said upcoming school years would look really different if not for that extra aid. 

“[The 2023-2024 school year] will — or would — look dramatically different if the foundation aid doesn’t end up being fully funded,” Blackman said. “So that’s why I stress that this is what we know today.”

Blackman made that presentation to the Binghamton City School board last week. Binghamton was one of the districts designated as “under fiscal stress” back in 2020.

It’s since been moved off that list. But just barely. 

Instead of a $15-20 million dollar deficit like in years past, the district now has a modest surplus of $4 million.

Blackman listed a variety of factors behind the surplus — the district had more teacher vacancies, so they saved on salaries. Restrictions on elective surgeries and medical procedures translated to lower health insurance costs for employees. And during periods of online learning, utilities like electricity and water bills were lower too. But the biggest factor was the influx of state and federal aid. 

Much of that COVID-related aid is temporary. As for foundation aid, it will not materialize fully until 2023, despite a years-long battle to fund the program. Foundation aid can also fluctuate based on the needs of the district and the students it serves.

Increased aid didn’t make as big of an impact in all districts, however. Newfield Central School District in Tompkins County didn’t fare quite as well, despite the added federal and state funds. The comptroller’s report said Newfield ranked among the highest in the state for fiscal stress last year — indicating a continuing decline for the small rural district since 2020.