State Legislative Session Looms Over Rockaway Schools

 State Legislative Session Looms Over Rockaway Schools

By Matthew Hayes

Assemblymembers and Senators returned to Albany this past Wednesday for the first day of the 2024 State Legislative session. Following the Christmas holiday, the legislature is expected to remain divided over high-profile issues such as bail reform, rent control, universal healthcare, cannabis regulation, and the environment. Underneath the noise of these partisan debates, the legislature is also expected to take action on a myriad of smaller policy changes which could prove just as, if not more impactful on everyday life on the Rockaway peninsula.

Tucked away deep within Governor Kathy Hochul’s Executive Budget Proposal for the 2023 State Legislative session was a seemingly innocent and largely ignored adjustment to the funding formula for non-public schools. For decades, the state government has fully refunded non-public schools, including private schools and religious institutions such as yeshivas and Catholic academies, for the cost of providing state-mandated services to their students. These mandated services include overseeing and grading state tests, collecting and reporting attendance statistics, and providing important health information to students and parents. While Governor Hochul’s proposal guaranteed $193 million to non-public schools to cover the cost of these mandated services, it also requires the State Education Department to deny any reimbursement claims which exceed this pre-set amount, rather than allowing for the department to request more funding in the future as necessary.

These funding cuts, though seemingly small, would still have very significant impacts on our local schools on the Rockaway peninsula. According to Dr. Christopher Scharbach, principal of St. Francis de Sales Catholic Academy in Belle Harbor, his school spends an estimated $200,000 every year in providing state-mandated services and exams. Traditionally, this bill has been fully reimbursed in a series of installments throughout the year, allowing Catholic schools like St. Francis, which have worked hard to control tuition costs while providing a high-quality education to all students, to maintain a degree of financial stability. Of course, the Governor does not want to eliminate the entirety of this funding for non-public schools, but even a slight reduction in reimbursements or simple uncertainty regarding the prospects for reimbursement could force already financially burdened schools to make some tough choices, including further tuition hikes in the future.

This problem should not only concern those with a direct connection to St. Francis de Sales or other non-public schools. In recent years, especially because of the migrant crisis, the city has struggled to find room to fit all its students within the public school system. Dr. Scharbach fears, “If St. Francis, a school of 600 students, closes tomorrow, where would those students go? What would happen to the public schools on the peninsula?” Our education system in Rockaway and throughout New York thrives when public and non-public schools work together to provide quality educations to students from every community. When it comes to funding essential services like attendance collection and exams, everyone has a stake in the matter.

The Governor’s Budget Proposal was not all bad news for non-public schools, as Hochul also proposed to make $45 million available for the continuation of critical safety and infrastructure improvements. At a time of heightened concern regarding violent crime and in a year which has witnessed a worrying rise in antisemitic hate crimes, these funds are essential for guaranteeing that every student in New York can receive an education safely, especially for those students who attend religious schools. Additionally, the Governor proposed that the state provide $70 million in funds for science, technology, engineering, and math (S.T.E.M.) instruction, an increase of $12 million from 2022. Through reimbursing non-public schools for the costs of hiring and retaining certified S.T.E.M. instructors, this program allows non-public schools to prepare their students to enter the 21st century economy in the same fashion as their public-school peers. Given the difficulties many non-public schools have had in retaining qualified S.T.E.M. instructors, due to disparities in teacher pay between school systems, one hopes that these funds will go a long way towards ensuring that all New York State school students receive a high-quality education regardless of what community they come from.

Ultimately, Governor Hochul dropped her proposed limit on non-public school reimbursement claims following extended budget negotiations with the state legislature which stretched several weeks past the self-imposed April 1 deadline for a finalized budget.  Throughout the rest of this academic year, schools like St. Francis can rest assured that any expenses they incur meeting requirements which the state imposes on them will be fully refunded and can focus their energy on providing the best education possible to the children of our neighborhood. However, the opening of this year’s legislative session means that all chips are back on the table once more. Without the attention of larger media outlets, smaller issues like this one could easily fall prey once more to back-room political negotiations, leaving all our local schools worse off in the process.

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