The Freeport School District Board of Education said on April 7 that there would no longer be an increase in the tax levy in the 2021-22 budget because of incoming funds from the state and federal governments.
After Congress passed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan stimulus package last month, New York state not only will allocate an additional $3.5 billion in school aid to districts across the state, but also increase foundation aid to at least 60 percent of what districts are owed, which would be phased in over the next three years.
Freeport is owed an estimated $45 million in foundation aid, so it would see a minimum of $27 million in additional state aid by 2024.
This year brings an additional $1.5 million to the district, raising its 2021-22 budget to $195 million.
Although the district had kept the tax levy flat from 2015 to 2019, it was forced to raise the tax-levy cap last year after a shortfall in state aid.
“We did not want to increase taxes again this year,” Superintendent Dr. Kishore Kuncham said, “because we wanted to be mindful about what our community has been facing this past year.”
“It wasn’t easy for our team to put this budget together,” school board President Vilma Lancaster said. “Hopefully we’ll be OK for the next three years.”
The additional funding will also cover unexpected expenses incurred during the pandemic.
Last year, to ensure equity and access to remote learning during the shutdown and to enable the district’s hybrid-learning model, Freeport spent about $1.2 million on laptop computers and webcams for students, and an additional $65,000 for remote Wi-Fi access for students who lacked internet connections.
The district also spent about $2 million for desk guards, motion-sensor faucets, personal protective equipment and custodial overtime to combat the spread of Covid-19.
About half of the $3.2 million spent last year was carried over to this year’s budget, Kuncham said.
The funding boost will help cover those expenses, as well as new ones that will most likely be incurred with schools not yet operating at full capacity.
District officials said that if schools continue to operate under the hybrid-learning model, for which students can opt to learn from home because of Covid-19 concerns, the district would need to purchase more laptops and hire additional staff members, which the new budget accounts for.
Salvatore Carambia, assistant superintendent for business, noted that district officials hope to add 14 new staff positions next year — three teachers, three teaching assistants, two bilingual teachers, two technology support staff members, one administrator for instructional technology, two deans for Freeport High School and one dean for the J.W. Dodd Middle School.
Last spring, officials had hoped to add 16 new staffing positions this year, but the plans were scrapped when the district lost nearly $3 million from the state because of Covid-19.
Board of Education Trustee Gabby Castillo said the arrival of the state and federal funding, as well as the promised increase of foundation aid, were historic events after years of advocacy.
For more than two decades, education and community officials have worked with local lawmakers to change the way foundation aid was calculated, as its formula, which factors in a district’s average per capita income, often leaves underserved communities with less than what they are entitled to. Freeport has normally been given millions less than what it needs for the past 10 years.
“This was a hard-fought battle by the community, educators and local advocates,” Castillo said. “It’s been a difficult year, but we’re not out of the woods yet. The foundation aid won’t come overnight, and we have to keep the fight going for financial equity.”
“Freeport is getting more of its fair share,” added Kuncham. “This really is a historic development that helps not only Freeport, but also other school districts across the state.
Along with the increase in state aid, the State Assembly and Senate also rejected Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to consolidate and reduce 11 expense-based aid categories into a single share services aid. The Freeport School District would have lost $6.5 million under the proposal.
District officials will continue to review and edit the 2021-22 budget plan and present its final draft on April 20 for approval.
The budget also includes a list of capital improvement projects to be completed with $2.5 million from the district’s capital reserve fund.
Residents will vote on the budget and capital reserve proposition May 18.