Featured Story

Shelter Island School superintendent calls out governor on aid cuts: Seeks reversal from Legislature

If Gov. Kathy Hochul’s (D) budget pertaining to state aid for the 2024-25 school year were to hold, Shelter Island would experience a 23.62% cut in aid that would devastate the educational program on Shelter Island.

So says a letter from Superintendent Brian Doelger, Ed.D., Board of Education President Kathleen Lynch and Shelter Island Faculty Association President Mary Kanarvogel, that was sent to the governor last week.

Mr. Doelger said he has calculated that the district could have to absorb an almost $140,000 cut if Ms. Hochul’s budget is unchanged. What that could mean to potential cuts in programs and/or staff hasn’t yet been determined, he said.

The letter was copied to State Senator Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) and Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr. (D-Sag Harbor) as well as Congressman Nick LaLota (R-Amityville) and Town Supervisor Amber Brach-Williams.

“The proposed budget is another direct hit on Shelter Island and Long Island,” the letter said. “While many districts have seen significant raises in foundation aid over the past few years, our district has received little to no increase, year after year.”

Foundation Aid is the primary source of state funding for public schools and is calculated using a formula reflecting actual district expenditures and students’ needs. It replaced about 30 previously funded programs, for which schools received state aid.

Most Long Island state legislators have banded together to argue schools in their districts need a revised formula that gives them the money they say they are being denied.

Mr. Doelger argued that the state has taken “a large portion of the money from hard working Shelter Island citizens and used it to fund other projects in New York State.”

He cited projects such as the Buffalo Bills Stadium, saying that money was allotted “on the backs of our taxpayers and school children.”

The district is absorbing medical insurance premium costs of 8%, and transportation expenses that have gone up by 30% in the last few years, the superintendent said. Enrollment has remained steady, while additional services have been added for students with supplemental learning and language needs, Mr. Doelger told the governor.

Since December, the district has benefited from a federal program to provide free breakfasts and lunches to all students without having to qualify based on family income. Mr. Doelger said when the program was needs based, about 35% of Island students qualified for free meals.

Given that the superintendent received figures represented for the district in the governor’s budget only a few minutes before the Jan. 16 budget meeting, he hadn’t had time to look at details and how it could affect plans.

“We are hopeful that these unfair cuts are restored through the legislative process. If they are not, we will be looking at pretty substantive cuts that we will have to figure out,” Mr. Doelger said.

On a more hopeful side, both the Island’s representatives in the state Legislature have pledged to fight to expand school spending, understanding that not every East End town can tax residents to make up for state aid that could be lost.

Mr. Thiele has pledged not to vote for a budget that decreases foundation aid to any school district in the state. Last week, he told the Reporter in a telephone interview, “Every governor’s budget is dead on arrival. I don’t see support for this proposal in the Legislature,” he said, noting the budget process in the Legislature began this week.

“It’s a bad proposal,” he said about Ms. Hochul’s proposal. “It would violate the compact between the state and local school districts to provide a quality education to every child,” he said in this week’s press release. “The losers would be both the local taxpayer and our children. There must be long term certainty and stability in funding state education. Historic increases cannot now be followed by a substantial cut,” he said.

“I’m optimistic we will make the school districts whole.”

Mr. Thiele said three districts in the area with “great challenges” — Greenport, Riverhead and Hampton Bays — have received more foundation aid. But he’s still willing to continue the effort to bring more dollars to Long Island area schools.

Mr. Palumbo said he is “very troubled by the school aid funding cuts included in the governor’s budget proposal … These cuts disproportionately impact rural and suburban school districts throughout the state and right here on Long Island. State education funding is critical toward ensuring students receive a quality education, while reducing the burden on struggling homeowners who pay some of the highest property taxes in the nation.” 

The cuts to Shelter Island “would have a severe impact on the community, students and families,” he added, Mr. Palumbo pledged to continue to work with his colleagues on both sides of the aisle to restore these “draconian cuts,”  and “provide our school districts with their fair share of state education funding and ensure our tax dollars work for us here on Long Island and are not siphoned away to underwrite the growing crises in New York City.”