Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's plan for cutting financial aid to many of Long Island's highest-taxed school districts must be reversed -- even if it means taking money from some of the governor's pet projects, a key GOP lawmaker said Saturday.
State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) assured a breakfast crowd of local educators that he and his colleagues will push for restoration of "high-tax" aid for the 2013-14 school year that Cuomo wants to cut from the budget.
That aid is designed for districts of modest wealth that have high property taxes. More than 70 percent of high-tax assistance goes to the Island's schools, with the majority of those receiving it in Suffolk County.
Cuomo contends that shifting some high-tax aid to other forms of assistance would make distribution more equitable.
"If we have to have a No. 1 priority, it's got to be in terms of restoring high-tax aid," said Flanagan, who is chairman of the Senate's Education Committee.
In answer to a school administrator's question, the senator said he opposes another proposal by Cuomo, a Democrat, to add $25 million to next year's spending for full-day prekindergarten classes.
Such money would be better allocated in preventing schools from losing existing funds, such as high-tax assistance, he said.
Flanagan noted that the proposed pre-K aid, which would be earmarked for poor children, probably would go mostly to New York City and other urban areas, not to the Island.
"A lot of it does come down to being parochial," he said.
Morris Peters, a spokesman for the governor's budget division, responded to Flanagan Saturday by citing research demonstrating that well-designed pre-K programs can help produce significant gains in children's learning in later grades.
Flanagan's comments were among the strongest made by a ranking Republican since Cuomo proposed a $142.6 billion state budget on Jan. 22.
Initially, GOP leaders, who had not seen budget details in advance, said they were pleased by the governor's call for a statewide school-aid hike of $889 million, or 4.4 percent.
That includes $611 million in regular aid, $203 million in a one-year-only supplement and $75 million for new initiatives including full-day prekindergarten.
Flanagan Saturday reiterated his support for the $889-million increase, but said he opposes the way the governor's plan would distribute the money among districts statewide.
Senate Republicans face a difficult task this year in reshaping the state's aid package, because their coalition majority includes six breakaway Democrats.
Moreover, some Island school officials predict that upstate districts will push especially hard in coming months for a bigger share of aid, because their region is hard-pressed economically.