Suffolk educators call for new state funding formula

Robert J. Vecchio, President of the William Floyd Robert J. Vecchio, President of the William Floyd School Board, asks a question during a legislative breakfast on Feb. 8, 2014 at Longwood High School in Middle Island. Photo Credit: Ed Betz

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Suffolk County public school leaders pressed state legislators Saturday for an end to the funding formula they say has cost nearly 4,000 education jobs, and forced larger class sizes and cuts to student programs.

Superintendents, school board members, teachers and education advocates questioned the state's use of the formula at an annual breakfast forum at Longwood Middle School in Middle Island.

School leaders took aim at the Gap Elimination Adjustment, which calculates annual state aid to districts. It was introduced in 2009-10 as a way to shrink the state's $10 billion budget deficit, but critics say it's a major reason school districts are in financial straits, along with the state property tax cap and costly mandates.

"I'm still reeling from those cuts," said Bob Vecchio, president of the William Floyd district's Board of Education.

The South Shore district has lost $38 million in state aid since 2010 and had to reduce staff by 200, including about 100 teachers, he said. The students, 65 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch, lost Advanced Placement classes and the entire elementary music program, Vecchio said.

The Island's schools have lost $1.5 billion in state aid over the last four years, bringing state funding this year to levels lower than 2008-09, administrators said. While many of the job losses were through attrition, districts also laid off 1,858 school employees over the same time period.

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"Those are people who are out of work. Those are people who can no longer support the Long Island economy," said Julie Lutz, chief operating officer of Eastern Suffolk BOCES, the event's co-sponsor.

More than 200 people representing 28 school districts attended the event. Ten lawmakers were on hand, including Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) and state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport). Each legislator had an opportunity to field questions from the audience.

Mounting financial pressures on school districts dominated the conversation. There was surprisingly little discussion on the hot-button Common Core curriculum or student data-sharing.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's 2014-15 budget plan restores some funding to school districts, as did the budgets of the last two years. The districts deemed neediest by the state are expected to get the most money.

But many Long Island school officials, including Vecchio, believe the restoration of the Gap Elimination Adjustment funds are unfairly tipped to districts in New York City and other low-wealth regions upstate without considering the high cost of living on Long Island. The GEA funds still fall about $900 million short for Long Island schools, said David Little, director of governmental relations for the New York State School Boards Association.

"There's work to be done here, and it is the work of the legislators and the governor," Little said.

Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) said the state needs to tackle issues such as automatic salary increases and pension reform for public employees to cut the costs burdening school districts.

"We are not growing enough economically as a state, so we have to address the cost side and these mandatory expenses," Fitzpatrick said.

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