INTERVIEW: There’s Silber in Them Hills

By Reuvain Borchardt

Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, Director of New York Government Relations at Agudath Israel of America, discusses items of interest to the Orthodox Jewish community in the state’s $237 billion fiscal year 2025 budget, which Gov. Kathy Hochul and the Legislature agreed to late last month, several weeks after its legally mandated deadline.

When we met with government officials — and we had three lobby days in Albany this year to discuss the budget, totaling over 60 meetings as well as a luncheon that over 30 legislators attended — we came with two major needs. Number 1 was security, obviously, in the wake of a sevenfold increase in antisemitism. As I said many times, including in my testimony at the joint budget hearings, the majority of yeshivah students are on scholarship, and often schools have to choose between educational enhancements and security. That’s not a good choice. Security is on everybody’s mind. We’re all targets, and we need to increase security funding. 

There’s a grant program called NPSE, for NonPublic School Safety Equipment. It’s a wonderful program that’s a per-student grant. It’s not a competitive grant; it’s just money that is given to schools, based on the number of students, to provide for security and safety needs including guards and physical upgrades and it includes capital construction that enhances safety. 

This bill started out at $4.5 million only about a decade ago.

And largely as a result of advocacy by Agudah and our coalition partners, the number kept steadily rising, and more uses were added to it. The past two years it was at $45 million.

This year basically the whole nonpublic school community — Agudah, Teach NYS, Catholic Conference, and others — came together and made a big push for doubling it to $90 million. The two legislators pushing this were Sen. Mike Gianaris, the deputy majority leader; and Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi. They circulated a letter, even before the governor put out her executive budget — which precedes the Legislature’s proposed budget. 

In the end, we got $70 million — not the doubling we had asked for, but still a very nice increase. That is a major accomplishment that will add a lot more money for schools to use for security.

Right. There’s a second program called the Securing Communities Against Hate Crime grant program. That covers more than schools — it includes any entity at risk of hate crimes, including camps and JCCs. That one gives a maximum of $50,000 per institution, and it is a competitive grant. So no one is guaranteed to get it. And it’s strictly for capital needs — you can’t use it for security guards. 

That one got $35 million in this year’s budget, up from $25 million last year.

Agudath Israel leaders meet with Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris (4th L) on one of Agudah’s 2024 lobbying days in Albany. (Moshe Gershbaum/Agudath Israel)

Funding for mandated services, which is the largest source of funding for nonpublic schools. 

It goes back to a 1974 law that was originally championed by Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z”l, who helped conceive the concept of mandated services funding. It reimburses schools for a host of mandates that the state imposes on them, like taking attendance, testing, ensuring immunizations, and others.

For the past three years, mandated-services funding stayed at the same level: $195 million. But because expenses go up, last year those funds were not enough to pay for all the schools’ mandated services; there was a shortfall of about 4%. We expected another shortfall this year, possibly of even more than 4%, though we won’t know for sure till the end of this school year.

So this year, before the governor even released her executive budget, we alerted the governor’s office that we need a lot of money to cover the mandated services shortfall of the past two years in addition to the funding for next year.

And, thankfully, the governor put $239 million in the executive budget. And the Legislature then added $1.9 million, so the final amount is actually $241 million. We anticipate this to be enough to cover the shortfall of the past two years as well as the costs for the coming year.

In January, the governor releases her executive budget, how she wants the state to spend its money over the next fiscal year.

Then the Legislature holds a series of budget hearings.

In March, the Assembly and Senate each release their “one-house budget.” Then the executive, the Assembly, and Senate get together and negotiate a final budget, which by law which must be voted on by the Legislature before April 1, though it’s often late. This year it was three weeks late.

By the way, New York State’s budget must be balanced. This is not like the federal government, which can do endless deficit spending. In New York State, revenues have to equal expenditures; if they don’t, you need to either cut spending or raise taxes. For capital projects, they could borrow money by issuing bonds. But, basically, expenditures can’t be more than revenues.

The funding for that stayed the same as last year, so we have not yet been able to get universal school lunch.

The way funding works for school meals is that the federal government pays for meals for free or reduced cost based on the family’s income. But there’s something called Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which says that if at least 62.5% of students in a school system are verified low-income, all students in that school system get free meals. 

We joined a coalition last year that made a big push for the state to cover the costs of all meals for all students, regardless of income, that’s not covered by the feds. That would have cost the state like an additional $200 million.

We didn’t get everything covered, but we got the state to add $134 million. With those funds, they were able to lower the threshold to 40% — so in school systems whose student body that’s verified low-income is above 40% but below 62.5%, the state would cover the cost so that all students get free meals in those schools. 

But school systems that have less than 40% of students who are low income, will continue on the old program in which only students who qualify based on income will get free or reduced-price meals, but higher-income students will not. And now the federal government has lowered CEP to 25% so any school that opts in, the state will now cover those schools as well, so, automatically, more students will be covered.

We tried to push again this year for truly universal free meals, but we did not get it. The state only agreed to the same additional $134 million it gave in the last budget.

Overall, across the state, probably 80% of students now get free meals. But we’ll keep trying to get the universal meals.

Agudath Israel’s (R-L) Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Chaskel Bennett, and Rabbi Yeruchim Silber meeting with Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, Chair of the Assembly Education Committee. (Moshe Gershbaum/Agudath Israel)

That went up by $2.5 million, from $73 million to $75.5 million.

This program is really the brainchild of Teach NYS. It started around seven years ago at $5 million.

We have worked very closely with Teach NYS on issues like this, as well as security and other items, as well as with the Catholic Conference and other groups.

And while we’re on the subject of collaboration, I want to mention that we sent out action alerts, asking people to call and email their legislators. People need to know that this really makes a difference. It’s essential that community members know how much more effective our advocacy is when the legislators hear directly from their constituents.

This provision added gang assaults, other assaults, harassment, and other crimes to those that can be charged as hate crimes.

And, by the way, everyone knows there’s been a lot of talk recently about changes to the bail law. While there weren’t really any changes on that front in this year’s budget, remember that by adding a hate element to a crime, that could make a crime eligible for cash bail though it previously was not.

CDPAP, which stands for Consumer Directed Personal Assistance Program, is a state program paid with federal funds that allows family and friends to be paid for providing assistance to elderly relatives or friends, rather than having to hire someone from an outside agency.

There are what’s known as fiscal intermediaries, which these caregivers go through, who bill Medicare and Medicaid for the CDPAP. But under the new law, the governor will pick one central agency to do it. They claim it will save money, but most healthcare advocates are very opposed to it. In fact, there are legislators who voted against the budget just based on the change to CDPAP.

The concern is that it is going to become too bureaucratic, having one colossal organization deal with it all, rather than the current system of fiscal intermediaries, which know the clients and, being smaller, are better at directing care.

It’ll actually apply to any municipality around the state.

This was one of those battles between those who use bikes and public transportation vs. those who drive. We all want to save lives, and of course nobody wants to see anybody killed. But the question is, is this being done to save lives or to be a revenue grabber?

And now that the law has passed allowing the city to lower speed limits, there will certainly be a big push, by those opposed to cars, to get the city to do so.

There were two issues.

For many years, there was a program called 421-a which was a tax incentive for developers to develop affordable housing. That recently expired, and the fear was that without that there would be a shortage of available housing. Meanwhile, tenant advocates were pushing for something called good-cause eviction, which would mean that in non-rent controlled apartments in multifamily buildings that are not owner occupied, landlords cannot evict a tenant except for a very limited number of reasons, like not paying rent; and that landlords would have to justify in court any rent increase above a certain amount.

That’s correct.

Well, the final deal was the sort of classic compromise that made nobody happy. There is a version of good-cause eviction, but there are many exemptions. Outside of New York City, it only applies to municipalities that opt in. And there are certain carve-outs and sunsets. 

The tax incentives were extended. They will now be called 485-x. It will apply for 10 years and sunset in 2034.

It also says that these projects have to be built with union construction, so that’s a big win for the trade unions.

Yes, I forgot to mention: They extended mayoral control of schools in New York City, so the mayor controls the NYC Department of Education and is accountable for education. With the old system, nobody was accountable.

They only grant mayoral control for a few years at a time. They extended it now for another two years.

Previously, the mayor could only appoint some members to the city Board of Education, which was just another bureaucracy. Mayor Bloomberg was the first one who got mayoral control. Now there is real accountability.

By and large, I think it was a good budget. You never get everything you want, but as someone in Albany told us years ago, “If I give everything you want this year, you won’t come back next year.” So, it’s a give and take. You put out your list of needs, and I think by and large it was a good year. There is a record amount of money going to nonpublic schools — over $400 million, which is great. But we won’t stop. We’ll continue to come back and push for more funding for our yeshivas as well as real relief for parents. 

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