LI schools, guv split on use of $250M

New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, prepares

New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, prepares to deliver the 2012 New York State Budget, after being introduced by Lt. Gov. Robert Duffey, right, in Albany. (Jan. 17, 2012) (Credit: AP )

A political debate is looming on Long Island and statewide over the question of whether $250 million in state financial aid will be used next year to promote higher student test scores and other reforms, or to help local districts hold down property taxes.

Many of the Island's school leaders are urging that they be allowed to spend their share of that money without strings attached, so they can keep within the restrictions of a new statewide cap on property taxes.

The state's major education groups -- teacher unions, school boards and others -- also favor that approach.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, however, wants to distribute the money as competitive "performance" grants, to reward districts that succeed in boosting student performance or operating more efficiently. The $250 million is part of a broader $805 million in new aid proposed by the governor -- the first statewide increase in three years.

The debate gets under way locally Wednesday, as the Alliance for Quality Education, an activist group aligned with teacher unions, holds news conferences in Wyandanch and seven other locations across the state. The group opposes Cuomo's plan, saying it could deprive Wyandanch and other low-wealth districts of money desperately needed.

Meanwhile, other districts such as Mineola are organizing letter-writing campaigns, urging state lawmakers to revamp Cuomo's aid-distribution plan and allot them more money.

Mineola officials voice disappointment that their district would actually lose $87,000 in aid next year under the governor's proposal, especially since they have tried to operate efficiently by closing one school in September and agreeing to close another school next fall.

"If everyone is supposed to get an increase, how am I ending up with a decrease?" said Mineola's superintendent, Michael Nagler. "It feels like we are being penalized."

Cuomo, in his budget message this month, contended that his proposed performance grants were needed to shake up the status quo and produce better academic results. The governor noted that New York ranks 38th among states in high school graduation rates.

"Somehow along the way we've become more concerned with perpetuating the bureaucracy than focusing on achievement for the student," he said.

Cuomo's budget would boost school aid statewide by more than $550 million, or 2.8 percent, not counting the $250 million in competitive grants. The governor's aides assert that most of the increase is targeted for the neediest districts.

Discrepancies abound, however. On the Island, the affluent North Shore district would get an 8.1 percent aid hike, while the low-wealth districts of Longwood, South Country and Patchogue-Medford would each get increases of less than 1 percent.

School finance experts say causes of the discrepancies are unclear. But many lawmakers predict that most of the disputed $250 million will be redistributed to school districts without conditions attached, leaving the governor and state Education Department with about $50 million to distribute as competitive grants on a pilot basis.

"I believe that the orientation of the legislature is that before we put any more money into those grants, we see how they're working out first," said state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

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