LI schools will get most state aid since recession

Students take notes during a lecture last year. Students take notes during a lecture last year. State lawmakers, who were racing the clock Monday, March 31, 2014, to meet a midnight budget deadline, described the latest aid appropriation as an effort to help Island residents whose local property taxes rank among the nation's highest. Photo Credit: Heather Walsh

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Long Island's public schools gain $125.7 million in extra operating aid as part of a budget package approved by legislators -- an election-year cash infusion that is the biggest since the financial crash of 2008.

The 5.63 percent increase Islandwide, more than double the hike proposed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in January, will provide $46.3 million in extra assistance to schools in Nassau County and $79.3 million more to Suffolk schools.

Those figures cover state aid for day-to-day school operations, which represent the bulk of expenses, but exclude aid that reimburses districts for costs of voter-approved school construction and repair.

State lawmakers, who were racing the clock Monday to meet a midnight budget deadline, described the latest aid appropriation as an effort to help Island residents whose local property taxes rank among the nation's highest.

"When you invest in education, you're relieving the burden on homeowners," said Assemb. Harvey Weisenberg (D-Long Beach), a former teacher and assistant principal. "We have academic success, but we pay taxes for it."

The aid increase for the 2014-15 school year is the largest since 2008-09, and helps districts to recapture funding reduced by Albany during the depths of the economic downturn. Next year will mark the first time that the state's overall assistance to schools in Nassau and Suffolk is slightly higher than it was at the onset of the recession.

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Aid distribution uneven

Aid distribution to districts has been uneven, however. A Newsday review finds that, even with the latest hike in state aid, at least 87 of Long Island's 124 districts will receive less assistance next year than they did in 2008-09.

Local educators noted that aid reductions from past years, coupled with state property-tax caps now in effect, have produced a slow but steady increase in average class sizes.

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David Feller, superintendent of North Merrick schools, said an overall aid increase of 4.06 percent projected for his district in the coming school year is "good, but it's still far from where we need to be."

Feller, who also serves as president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents, criticized a decision by Cuomo and lawmakers to allocate $340 million next year for full-day pre-kindergarten. All but $40 million of that money will go to New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio has made preschools a priority.

"We should be making full-day kindergarten mandatory and making sure that districts have the resources to provide that, before we start allocating money for preschool," Feller said.

 

School chiefs laud increase

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Reaction by school leaders to the aid increase was generally positive. The statewide hike totals $1.12 billion, or 5.41 percent, not including preschool funding.

"We are grateful to the Assembly and Senate for their efforts to increase state aid," said Robert Reidy, executive director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

"Our communities spoke up in support of public education, and our legislators listened," said Roberta Gerold, president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association. Gerold is schools chief in the Middle Country district, where aid will rise 5.19 percent.

Other budget provisions are more controversial. One Cuomo initiative would provide $2 billion in statewide bonding, including $259.4 million on Long Island, for school computers and other technology, if voters approve in a November referendum.

Another provision would provide millions of New Yorkers with property-tax rebates over the next two years to local governments and school districts that stay within state tax caps. To benefit from Cuomo's "tax freeze" for the second year, local governments and school districts also would have to detail plans for cutting costs and reducing tax levies at least 1 percent for each of the next three years.

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Tax-cap override prevention

Fred Gorman, a Nesconset resident and taxpayer advocate, expressed hope that the new tax incentives, coupled with state aid, would persuade school officials not to attempt tax-cap overrides in school budget voting scheduled May 20. Override of a local district's tax-levy limit requires support from at least 60 percent of the district's voters.

Seven Long Island districts indicated last month that they probably would seek to pierce caps; three others had not yet decided.

"I believe many of those, if not all, will reconsider because of the tax advantage," said Gorman, a founder of Long Islanders for Educational Reform, a regional tax-activist group. "It'll buy a lot of goodwill."

Diana Todaro, superintendent of Harborfields schools, said Monday that the district's board would not decide whether to remain within its cap until it adopts a budget on April 9.

Todaro added, however, that an extra $342,000 in state aid would help the district reduce class sizes and add academic services, including two college-level Advanced Placement courses.

"Any additional aid is helpful, and I have to thank our legislators for listening to us," she said.

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