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Unfair for NY to lead schools on about bus aid

It’s one thing for New York state to withhold or cut aid to schools in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Every school should have been expecting the state to take action as it wrestles with a multi-billion-dollar deficit — and, to their credit, many schools took preemptive action.

But it is another thing entirely not to reimburse districts for transportation aid that has already been spent. The issue is especially acute for rural school districts that relied on bus drivers to deliver meals and packets of schoolwork to students when schools were shut down earlier this year. Now that some schools have returned to full remote, such as Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake, families need those things again. They’re available, but not home-delivered; people have to pick them up.

This is not always easy. The Saranac Lake Central School District is geographically the largest in New York state, with some students living more than 20 miles away from school.

Some school officials feel like the state led them on all these last nine months. Districts were mandated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to make sure meal services and learning programs continued, and districts that received CARES Act money were encouraged not to lay off employees. Now, schools have spent money it turns out they didn’t have.

“There was no discussion of it (by the state),” said SLCSD Superintendent Diane Fox. “The money comes the following year, so unbeknownst to us until very recently, we will see a dramatic reduction in our transportation aid.”

Business Executive Cindy Moody predicted that the Saranac Lake district could lose more than $70,000 of the $244,490 it spent on transportation in the spring lockdown period. The district gets more than 30% of its funds from the state.

“We always questioned since March whether or not that was going to be reimbursed,” Tupper Lake Central School District Business Administrator Dan Bower said. “They (state officials) finally got around to answering that question, and unfortunately the answer was no.”

Fox also said the need has increased as the pandemic has worn on. More students who got single-day food deliveries have moved to requesting food for five days a week.

Legislation has already been introduced in the state Legislature, and passed in the state Senate, to correct the situation — but given that the governor asked for and was granted extensive executive powers, legislation should not be necessary. The governor created this situation, but it is falling to the Legislature to listen to schools and clean it up. The governor should not have such unlimited power, and anyway, with power should come responsibility for how its use may hurt people.

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