School official: Cuomo aid not stable funding source
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Much of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's latest proposal for school aid consists of "funny money" that cannot be relied upon as a stable source of financing, a leading Long Island educator told a regional forum Friday.
William Johnson, superintendent of Rockville Centre schools, said the governor's aid plan for the 2013-14 school year includes more than $310 million in new incentive grants and one-time payments that districts cannot count on over extended periods.
That's in addition to a $611 million statewide increase in traditional aid.
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"It's a combination of aid package and funny money," said Johnson, who urged his audience to lobby hard for more aid. "The problem with it, it's one-time-only."
He spoke to nearly 200 school officials at a forum sponsored by the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents.
A spokesman for the governor's Budget Division later rejected any suggestion that next year's aid plan is gimmicky.
Spokesman Morris Peters, in a phone interview, said the governor's approach to school aid consistently provides greater financial stability than was available in the past, by guaranteeing increases that are pegged to statewide growth in personal income for two years at a time.
Peters added that tying aid increases to income growth had the benefit of ensuring the state does not commit to higher spending than it can afford.
"We can't go back to an era where increases in expenditures have no ties to the economic reality we live in," he said.
At the heart of the debate is an unusual proposal, outlined in Cuomo's January budget message, that would add $203 million to the total aid package for one year only. State lawmakers would decide how the extra money is distributed.
Up to now, many policy experts had praised the plan as both financially generous and politically shrewd. Johnson conceded the extra funding had positive features, but his remarks were far sharper than other criticisms aimed at the plan.
He has been a president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, and he pioneered the use in his district of college-level International Baccalaureate courses. That program has gradually spread to other Island districts.
Johnson also is a somewhat controversial figure, due to his pay package.
In November, the Empire Center for New York State Policy, a conservative Albany-area think tank, identified Johnson as the highest-paid school employee in the state, with total annual compensation of $567,248.
Johnson has responded that his annual salary is $221,000 and has remained flat for four years. The additional money, he said, included $300,000 in retirement funds from an earlier contract that was paid in advance -- a payout that was less than if he had taken a lump sum upon retirement.
Tim Hoefer, director of the Empire Center, said Friday that the superintendent's pay package has raised issues.
"It's not that this guy doesn't deserve the contract he gets," he said. "But it illustrates the bigger problem with schools, which is that districts get locked into these contracts they can't afford."