84% of LI school districts to get less aid than 6 years ago under Cuomo budget plan

Leaders at the New York State School Boards

Leaders at the New York State School Boards Association calculate that 84 percent of districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties would have less aid in 2014-15 as compared with the figures six years ago. (Credit: Heather Walsh)

More than 100 Long Island school districts would get less state operating aid in the coming academic year under Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's proposed budget than they received in 2008-09, before the economic downturn drove slashes in the funds.

School leaders said more money is needed to meet across-the-board cost increases, maintain educational programs and staff, pay for reform-driven federal and state mandates, and keep budgets within the property tax cap. But the governor's aides argue that the aid levels reflect drops in enrollment.

Leaders at the New York State School Boards Association calculate that 84 percent of districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties would have less aid in 2014-15 as compared with the figures six years ago. The statewide percentage is 68 percent.


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While the governor's $21.3 billion aid plan calls for a statewide 3.8 percent hike, it "falls dramatically short of expectation and need," said David Little, the association's director of governmental relations.

Cuomo aides fired back, noting that school enrollments generally have declined over the years since 2008-09, a peak year for state aid. The Island's student population has dropped by about 17,500 students, or 3.8 percent, during that period.

"It makes no sense to provide more funding to school districts that now have less students based on a budget from six years ago," said Dani Lever, a spokeswoman for the governor.

 

Argument rejected

School representatives rejected the argument that a gradual drop in enrollments is justification for aid reductions.

"That's certainly not the whole picture," said Little, citing increased costs of employee pay, health insurance, pensions and districts' heating expenses as examples that offset any savings from enrollment declines. "I can go from 25 students in a classroom to 19 students, and I still need a teacher in that classroom."

The debate over how much state money goes to public schools generally is following its familiar pattern. A governor calls for relatively small increases, and state lawmakers promise to add more cash to the final package. Approval is due April 1.

State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), chairman of the Education Committee, has predicted that the governor's call for $600 million-plus in additional operating aid will be boosted to at least $1 billion. The extra money would include $74 million not yet allocated, though it is earmarked for education statewide in the governor's budget.

But public discourse over education this year is volatile, fed by months of heated controversy about the state's Common Core testing standards, teacher job evaluations based in part on test results, and concern over privacy of student data. Local school boards contend it is unfair for the state to hold back on financial assistance even as districts are pressured to pay for more training and remedial services to help teachers and students prepare for tougher exams.

Another difference is that Cuomo initially sounded expansive on the subject of aid, announcing at a December cabinet meeting that education spending "could go up close to 5 percent."

 

What the funds would cover

The governor's budget, released the following month, called for education spending to rise 3.8 percent in 2014-15 and included $100 million for new, full-day prekindergarten classes focused on the "highest-needs" students, most of whom live in urban areas.

In addition, $2 billion in borrowed money would be provided for classroom technology and expansion, if voters approve a statewide "Smart Schools" bond issue in November.

State formula-based aid for general school operations, including money for school construction and renovation, would increase by about 2.8 percent over the current school year, both statewide and on Long Island.

Bottom line: Aid appropriations for 101 districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties would not fully recover from cuts imposed in 2010-11 and 2011-12 as a result of the economic downturn -- though some gains have been made in the years since.

That covers 121 districts that are included in the state's standard calculations of aid. Three East End systems -- New Suffolk, Sagaponack and Wainscott -- are not included, due to their small size.

Across the Island, school officials have complained publicly for more than a year that they have been forced to cope with less state financial help than they received during better economic times, pointing to millions in aid withheld by the state since 2009-10 to reduce a $10 billion budget deficit. Many suburban lawmakers, Flanagan included, have agreed those cuts should be fully restored as money becomes available.

Cuomo has supported partial restorations but also has said that too much school money is going to administrative salaries.

"The governor's priority is providing education funding based on the number of students it helps, not growing the education bureaucracy to serve the demands of the special interests," Lever said.

She added that the proposed budget includes nearly $74 million in extra school aid over the current year's figure for Nassau and Suffolk. She also mentioned the $2 billion bond issue intended "to create the classrooms of tomorrow in every school," but did not confirm if the Island would get a specific share of that money.

 

'It's just so unrealistic'

At least one local district, Wyandanch, has declared that the governor's proposal for more public prekindergarten programs would be a great help for families that cannot afford private classes. New York City's new mayor, Bill de Blasio, has made preschool expansion his top priority.

But a majority of the Island's school leaders have reacted coolly to Cuomo's plans, saying that a greater share of state money needs to be directed toward shoring up K-12 classes.

Those educators added that their ability to raise tax revenues locally will be sharply curtailed by the state-imposed property tax cap, which because of low inflation will be even more restrictive this year.

State law sets a basic maximum cap limit of 2 percent on school-tax increases, not counting exempted spending items. Inflation's effect on the cap for 2014-15 district budgets means the basic cap will be 1.48 percent, according to the state comptroller's office.

As a result, school officials said, many districts will find it difficult to maintain full-day kindergartens -- never mind prekindergarten classes -- and some districts may have to cut back to half-day sessions. About 90 percent of the Island's districts have full-day programs.

"How are you going to have kids in full-day prekindergarten, and then have them come back to kindergartens that are half-day?" said Ginger Lieberman, president of the Plainview-Old Bethpage school board. "It's just so unrealistic!"

Plainview-Old Bethpage hosted a conference last weekend on school funding and other issues -- one of a series of sessions scheduled across the Island.

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