Catholic leaders seek 'equal treatment' on tax rebate

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ALBANY - The state's Catholic bishops, including William Murphy of Long Island, are lobbying lawmakers to give "equal treatment" to parochial schools and public schools.

Murphy said Tuesday that he and other Catholic leaders, along with thousands of parishioners, are seeking reimbursement for religious schools of the MTA payroll tax. The schools pay about $6 million per year, but they don't receive the tax rebate secured for their public counterparts.

Catholics also want several hundred million dollars they say is owed to parochial schools through the Comprehensive Attendance Policy. Public schools receive similar support in the form of direct state aid.

"We understand money is a problem for the state and it's a problem for us," Murphy said.

Sister Joanne Callahan, schools superintendent for the Rockville Centre diocese, decried the funding disparity. She said 488,000 students attend parochial schools across New York, saving the state $8.5 billion a year in education costs.

However, Catholic schools are "in crisis," with a dozen shutting down each year statewide, Callahan said. Without more consistent support from state government, dioceses will be forced to increase school fees and hard-pressed parents will enroll their children in public school. This, in turn, will increase costs for school districts and lead to property tax hikes, she added.

Expanding the payroll tax rebates requires legislation that has been introduced.

On the attendance policy issue, Education Department spokesman Tom Dunn said his agency is working with lawmakers and Gov. David A. Paterson "to find a solution."

Support for Catholic schools was one of six issues the bishops lobbied state leaders on Tuesday and Monday. They were joined in the Capitol Tuesday by 1,200 parishioners.

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Asked about the reception he received from lawmakers worried about the state budget deficit, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York City said, "We aren't asking for more money. We are asking for government to keep its promises."

Dolan and Murphy said they also urged state officials not to cut programs for the poor, disabled and elderly.

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