Keeping students safe, while allowing them to return to school during the pandemic has put a financial strain on the Port Washington School District, along with many other districts on Long Island. COVID-19 expenses for Port Washington’s current school year have already amounted to nearly $3 million in excess of the initial budget. In preparation for the upcoming 2021-22 school year, members of the Port Washington Board of Education, along with administration have been meeting with local elected officials to discuss how they can ensure that Port Washington receives adequate state and federal funding.
A change.org petition was created by Port’s Legislative Task Force last month asking community members for their support in ensuring that “Port gets its fair share of federal COVID relief aid.” The petition received more than 2,500 signatures from members of the school community.
“As a district, we are committed to fighting for our students, our leaders of tomorrow, to provide the educational opportunities and experiences that they deserve—they should not have to bear the brunt of our state’s struggle to balance its budget,” Dr. Michael Hynes, Superintendent of the Port Washington School District, said. “We are grateful to have the support of our local officials as we continue this fight.”
Last month, Port’s Legislative Task Force met with New York State Senator Anna Kaplan and Assemblywoman Gina Silitti. Several aspects of the 2021-22 proposed budget were discussed including the fact that Foundation Aid remained unchanged from last year and reimbursable expenses were categorized under “services aid,” which may leave the district with a shortfall for those expenses in the future. This coupled with the federal stimulus aid, which supplements but does not supplant years of shortfalls, continues to leave Port advocating for funding.
Kaplan stated that the federal government is looking to provide about $70 billion in aid for New York State, which will help fund entities, including school districts that have struggled due to the pandemic.
“We are doing our best to make sure that our schools are funded,” Kaplan said. “I’m optimistic based on what I’ve seen and heard that New York is going to get some relief from the federal government. We have also been promised that there will be funds available for public schools. We are advocating and we understand the importance of our public schools and that they are really hurting right now. They were not funded enough [to begin with], but they also had that extra expense in terms of COVID.”
Members of the task force also stressed the need for the state to provide information to the school districts regarding what guidelines will look like for the upcoming school year so that they can properly plan ahead before the budget vote takes place in May.
“Right now, there has been no direction from the state as to how we are opening our schools in September,” Emily Beys said. “We didn’t receive the September 2020 guidance until mid-July and it left school districts in a weak position, spending $2.7 million plus that we needed to open up. We are asking that we make a determination sooner rather than later to allow school districts to properly plan for what September 2021 is going to look like.”
The task force also discussed the digital divide, a continued expense that drives at the heart of making sure equity in education is provided, as well as the need for increased mental health and support services during their meeting with Silitti.
“Mental health and any of those services—they need financial support now more than ever, as students begin to return to school fully,” Julie Epstein, board of education member said.
“I think this only helps to build and grow our future. This has to be a top priority for budgetary purposes. It involves providing support staff, programming, assessments and we can’t do it without the financial support.”
Silitti stated that she is new to her position but that as a Port resident, she has plans to do all she can to help advocate for the Port School District.
The task force also met U.S. Congressman Tom Suozzi on March 4 to discuss how he may be able to help advocate for funding. Suozzi acknowledged the challenges that school districts, like Port Washington have faced this year with the pandemic.
“I’m trying to fight for money for New York all the time,” Suozzi said. “All of the things you are talking about to make your school district safe—we are hoping the federal government will give you sufficient money so that it will cover those expenses.”
Suozzi stated that he is fighting to bring more money to New York for the state, local governments and the school districts and he will do his best to help the district any way he can.
The task force will also be meeting with Nassau County Legislator Delia Deriggi Whitton on March 11, in an effort to continue advocating for adequate funding on a county level.
To view previous meetings held by the Legislative Task Force, visit the Port Washington School District’s Youtube page @Port Washington UFSD.
—Additional information provided by the Port Washington School District