Comptroller Tom DiNapoli on the Executive Budget & Fiscally Distressed Schools

Susan Arbetter

Capital Tonight

Jan 28, 2021

A preliminary analysis of the governor’s executive budget proposal by New York’s top fiscal watchdog states what other budget experts have noted, that the governor supplants state aid with federal money.

“The question is how much more will come from Washington. We assume more will be forthcoming, what will be the number, and when will it arrive,” the comptroller told Capital Tonight.

Earlier this week, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office also issued a report on 31 school districts across the state that are facing some level of fiscal distress.

Capital Tonight wanted to know how the governor’s budget treats these school districts which are already facing an uphill battle.

The answer, according to the comptroller, is not great.

Northern Adirondack Central School District sits at the very top of the comptroller’s list of the most significantly distressed districts. It was on the list last year as well.

According to Superintendent James Knight, Jr, for years the local contribution of property tax revenue to the district was extremely low.

“For years, the school board used money from its fund balance, that they should have asked the tax payers for,” explained Knight. “So, without raising taxes, they got to a place where the fund balance and cash reserves had dried up.”

Knight, who took the superintendent’s position two years ago, told Capital Tonight that the district fell further behind during the building of a capital project for which it had expected to be reimbursed by the state, but wasn’t after the state changed reimbursement rules.

“So, we mounted a very aggressive campaign last year, and actually passed a 49.5% tax increase,” Knight said. “Six times as many people voted on the school budget than the year before and it passed. t gets us back on the right trajectory.”

In other words, the district had been in the process of finding its financial footing.

But changes in how the governor’s executive budget pays for expense-based aid could drag the district backwards.

“We are the fifth largest geographical district in the state,” Knight explained of the district which sits at the very northern edge of New York state on the Canadian border. “So, the amount of money that we put toward our transportation budget surpasses any other districts because our students live at every extremity of our district.”

Unfortunately for Northern Adirondack, the governor’s budget “block grants” about a dozen different aid categories, including transportation and BOCES aid.

Comptroller DiNapoli says that this district will face trouble if the governor’s budget passes.

“Given their size, they are very reliant on transportation services and very reliant on the reimbursement in that area,” DiNapoli said. “The block grant strategy…may sound good on paper, but usually what that means is that you’re shrinking the overall pot of money that, in this case, would be going to a school district.”

Northern Adirondack Central Schools’ annual budget is about $23 million, according to Knight. The district has 850 students, more than half of which qualify for free and reduced lunch.

“Most of our community is a combination of things. Our parents either work within the prisons system, the healthcare industry, or the school system. Beyond that, this area has, and still maintains a lot of farm land, however, the dairy farmers have suffered for years,” Knight said.

And there’s more. Many of the parents work at the two prisons in Dannemora, one of which is slated for closure.

As part of his office’s report on fiscally distressed schools, Comptroller DiNapoli included a warning for school districts.

“This is a time of unprecedented uncertainty as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt school district operations and finances,” DiNapoli said. “I urge school district leaders to closely monitor their financial conditions, even if their fiscal stress scores were low in the early days of the crisis.”