Some Long Island lawmakers and education officials said more than $100 million in extra financial aid for the region’s schools in the governor’s proposed budget represents a good opening offer, but not nearly enough to cover districts’ rising expenses in the 2016-17 academic year.
The problem, officials said Wednesday, is that a statewide cap on property taxes championed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo four years ago is expected to hold their districts to near-zero tax increases for the next school year. The exact cap limit is to be announced by the state comptroller’s office this month.
That means districts will be almost entirely dependent on the state to cover rising salaries and other education costs, school administrators said, and Cuomo’s budget provides less than half the financial aid needed.
Legislative and school officials agreed, however, that figures released Wednesday by the governor’s budget office at least give a dollar base as they begin drafting local budgets for voting scheduled in districts statewide on May 17.
Officials cautioned that they could not fully analyze the impact of the governor’s plan until Thursday at the earliest, because many district-by-district aid figures were not released until late Wednesday.
“It’s an excellent start,” said Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport). “It’s the governor’s blueprint. We’ll take a hard look at it, and I’m confident we’ll add more money.”
Statewide, Cuomo proposes to boost school aid by nearly $1 billion. That represents an increase of a little over 4 percent in the state’s current $23.5 billion assistance package.
“We will not rest until our K-12 system is the best in the nation,” the governor declared in his annual budget message.
His remarks on education dealt almost entirely with financing issues — for example, extra funding for prekindergarten classes and the addition of health services in schools located in impoverished neighborhoods.
Cuomo offered no new plans to meet the concerns of parent leaders opposed to a law he backed last April that would base as much as 50 percent of teachers’ job ratings on results of student performance on state tests. Cuomo said he was leaving that issue to the state Board of Regents and the Education Department, which recently announced a four-year moratorium on linking state tests to evaluations.
Education analysts at both the state and local levels asserted Wednesday that more than $2 billion in added funding will be needed in 2016-17 just to allow the state’s 700-plus school districts to continue offering student services at current levels.
“I don’t think that a billion dollars is going to be enough,” said Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Plainview-Old Bethpage schools and president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents, referring to the governor’s proposal.
Another unresolved issue is the pace at which Albany is restoring money that was cut from districts’ revenues at the height of a financial crisis in 2010 and 2011. Schools in Nassau and Suffolk counties alone are owed $117 million in lost funding, known as the Gap Elimination Adjustment, or GEA.
Regional school leaders have demanded that the entire amount be repaid in 2016-17. The Board of Regents endorsed that approach on a statewide basis in its recent funding recommendations.
Cuomo instead called Wednesday for repaying the balance of money owed in two annual installments.
“I was surprised to hear that, because there appeared to be so much support for restoration of the GEA this next year,” said Roberta Gerold, the Middle Country schools chief. Gerold is a former president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association.
Flanagan, for his part, reiterated his pledge made last week to restore the balance of lost money during the coming year.
“I’m going to make sure it gets done,” the majority leader told Newsday after the governor’s budget presentation. “You know GEA elimination is the biggest issue for the schools on Long Island.”