Dense issues little known to public but huge for schools part of final state budget talks

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Spin Cycle

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ALBANY -- State budget negotiations are in part down to esoteric issues such as the complex “gap elimination adjustment,” which doesn’t register much with the general public but which is a major issue for public schools.

On Friday, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) said that easing the gap elimination adjustment, which trims the overall school aid agreement, is a sticking point. The issue is also a high priority for Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre).

The gap elimination adjustment, or GEA, takes back part of state school aid levels announced in state budget agreements. The money is used to address overall budget deficits, known as the budget gap. The adjustment amount is based on a formula using personal income growth as way to limit school aid increases. If state aid is increased beyond the projected growth in the state’s personal income, the GEA takes a bigger bite out of school aid.

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The New York State School Boards Association called the gap elimination adjustment “one of the most reviled provisions of the state’s school aid formula,” costing schools billions of dollars in the last five years.

The Senate proposes to increase the amount of GEA restored to school districts by $217 million over Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s plan. That would create a total restoration of $541 million for the state’s 700 school districts.

The Assembly proposes to restore $367 million in so-called gap aid.

The Senate also proposes to phase out the gap elimination adjustment in the 2016-17 school year, but Silver said Friday that no elimination of the measure is happening this year.

The GEA was supposed to be a temporary measure adopted in the 2008-11 fiscal crisis. The idea was to commit funds toward ending the huge deficits created by the loss of tax revenue in the recession, but the GEA has continued as a permanent element of school aid in New York’s economic recovery.

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The School Boards Association said gap elimination adjustment has cut $8.5 billion in school aid over the last four years, or an average of about $12 million per school district over four years and triggering layoffs and program cuts.

The total state aid to schools is now about $21 billion. Legislators said Thursday night that a tentative deal in the budget still being negotiated Friday would increase that by $1.1 billion, with $300 million to expand pre-kindergarten in New York City and $40 million to expand pre-kindergarten on Long Island and upstate.

Cuomo, Silver and Skelos were negotiating final aspects of the state budget on Friday.

“We’re at the same place we were last night,” Silver said Friday. “We are working toward an agreement.”

Cuomo, Skelos and Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx) wouldn’t comment. Klein leads the Independent Democratic Conference, which shares majority control of the Senate.

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He said he is still confident a budget will be adopted on time by midnight Monday night. He said he also expects to avoid having Cuomo issue “messages of necessity” to suspend the three days of public review of bills required by the state constitution. That would mean a budget deal would have to be sealed by Friday night at midnight.

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