Months of bad decisions and inaction by New York state officials have put school districts in the awkward position of having to give pay raises to most teachers while laying off others.

The districts could have avoided a large share of the layoffs had Governor Cuomo and the Legislature acted to freeze public employee wages during the crisis—something school officials cannot do on their own.

The Cuomo administration is mitigating an estimated $9.4 billion drop in tax and other revenues in part by withholding 20 percent of scheduled school aid payments. Districts have reduced spending on the assumption that the aid cuts will be permanent.

But most school employees are covered by union contracts, meaning district officials can’t restrain scheduled increases in pay or benefit levels. That leaves superintendents with only one way to meaningfully reduce costs: layoffs.

The Albany city school district is looking to cut up to 222 positions (out of about 1,700) to close a $19 million to $26 million gap created primarily by the drop in aid. State aid covers about 40 percent of the district’s operating costs.

But Albany’s teachers union contract, like virtually all teachers union contracts, calls for annual experience-based raises commonly known as steps.

Every teacher on July 1 was in line for step raises ranging from about 1.5 to 9.5 percent. The exact raises depend on each teacher’s education and experience, but the contract’s 29 experience-based “steps” average 3.9 percent. The district’s approximately $61 million in classroom instruction salary costs indicate raises would have cost about $2.3 million—or enough to cover 41 first-year teachers’ salaries. That’s about half of the 81 employees covered by the teachers contract who are slated for layoffs.

Albany superintendent Dr. Kaweeda Adams in April said she was seeking concessions from the district’s labor unions, but none have been announced.

Albany wasn’t alone in giving raises and layoffs simultaneously. Nearby Schenectady city schools are also heavily dependent on state aid, and the board last week cut more than 300 positions, including 107 teachers, to mitigate the expected loss of $28.5 million in aid.

Schenectady also had to give raises this year, despite the fact that the district’s teachers union contract expired in 2019. That’s because state law since 1982 (the Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law) has forced districts to keep giving step raises indefinitely until a new deal is reached. Schenectady’s step raises, per the contract, average 3 percent per year.

Albany passes the buck

State lawmakers set this situation in motion several months ago when they approved a fiscal 2021 state budget with a $10 billion gap between revenues and expenditures. On a state operating funds basis (the portion funded primarily with state taxes), it spent as much as Cuomo’s pre-COVID proposal in January.

The Legislature gave Cuomo special powers to reduce spending—which he hasn’t yet used. Instead, the state Budget Division has begun withholding certain payments and employee raises and indicating that the recipients may be made whole if federal aid arrives.

School districts were alerted about the cuts in mid-August—more than four months after state officials recognized they had a problem, and after Cuomo passed two different budgetary ‘checkpoints’ at which he could have permanently reduced expenditures.

As Cuomo put it on Tuesday, making any permanent spending moves—either raising taxes or reducing spending—would mean “accepting” that the federal government isn’t going to dish out unrestricted aid to fund, among other things, the country’s costliest K-12 education system.

But for practical purposes, it means shifting hard choices to local officials. The state, after all, has been borrowing while preserving pre-pandemic spending priorities. Even the most questionable state expenditures, such as its $420 million-per-year film and television production subsidy, remain intact.

The Legislature has also failed to give local officials the needed tools to control costs. For instance, a pay freeze would save New York schools, local governments and other public employers about $1.9 billion per year and help prevent further layoffs and service cuts.

That, of course, would require state officials to begin “accepting” a level of responsibility.

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