Austere aid plan disappoints school supporters

This is a first-grade classroom at Branch Brook

This is a first-grade classroom at Branch Brook Elementary School in Smithtown at the end of the day Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011. Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

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Long Island's public schools would gain $58 million extra in state operating aid next year under Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's proposed budget -- a 2.6 percent increase that disappointed school supporters facing a third year of wrestling with the effects of property tax caps.

The austere hike in assistance -- $18.3 million in Nassau County and $39.8 million in Suffolk -- surprised some education leaders, who said their districts need more to cope with the impact of the tax cap.

The cap for the 2014-15 school year, not counting allowed exemptions, would limit tax increases to less than 1.5 percent.

Cuomo's proposed aid increases, released Tuesday, were relatively low even in local districts that the state comptroller's office recently identified as facing fiscal pressure: 2.76 percent for Sachem, 2.56 percent for West Islip, 2.55 percent for Copiague and 0.72 percent for Lawrence.

Figures exclude proposed aid increases for school construction and renovation, which go only to districts with voter-approved projects.

The budget proposal calls for overall school funding to climb to $21.88 billion for 2014-15 from $21.07 billion currently. That includes both support for traditional education services and an additional $100 million for full-day prekindergarten programs.

Leading state lawmakers from the Island predicted that the final aid package, due for approval by April 1, will rise significantly above Cuomo's recommendation. That would continue a familiar pattern, where governors typically call for less school money than the legislature ultimately approves.

"I would be shocked if it weren't higher," said state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), chairman of that chamber's Education Committee.

Flanagan estimated the aid package statewide would rise at least $1 billion to a total of more than $22 billion. The governor is seeking a $682 million increase statewide, and some legislative Democrats have called for $1.9 billion in new money.

The governor also is calling for a separate, $2 billion "Smart Schools" bond issue to pay for technological improvements. These would include new tablet computers, electronic bulletin boards and expansion of bandwidth capability, especially in poorer districts that cannot afford to pay for such technology.

"This year is going to be a banner year for us," Cuomo said, referring to technological upgrades in schools, repairs of roads and bridges, and other improvements.

Many Island educators don't see it that way. Several, in response to Cuomo's message, said their schools could have larger class sizes next year, along with cuts in such programs as art and music, unless lawmakers come through with substantially more cash.

"Long Island districts are running at a disadvantage in the way aid is calculated," said David Feller, president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents and superintendent of North Merrick schools. "An aid increase this small isn't going to be very helpful. We hope that the legislators, especially the Long Island delegation, will rise to the occasion again."

Like other school administrators, Feller fears that crafting 2014-15 district budgets to stay within the tax cap could be an especially thorny challenge.

State law sets a basic maximum cap limit of 2 percent on annual increases in school taxes, not counting exempted spending items. However, the state comptroller's office has calculated that low inflation means next year's basic cap will be 1.47 percent.

While Cuomo won praise from state Education Department officials for his support of expanded preschools, school lobby groups criticized his aid plan.

Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, a statewide coalition that includes teacher, parent and civic groups, said, "After four years, the governor has done nothing to address the rising inequalities between rich and poor school districts."

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