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Governor Cuomo’s proposed budget prompts debate on school funding formula

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, left, and Freeport schools

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, left, and Freeport schools Superintendent Kishore Kuncham. The educator is among those questioning whether a decade-old state law intended to drive more financial aid to districts with large numbers of needy students faces change under Cuomo's proposed 2017-18 budget. Composite photograph of Feb. 2, 2017. Credit: AP (left)/ Steve Pfost

A decade-old state law meant to drive more financial aid to school districts with large numbers of students from impoverished families faces virtual repeal under Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposed budget, according to leaders of education groups and administrators in local districts that receive assistance because of the formula.

Cuomo’s administration acknowledges that its proposed spending plan for the 2017-18 school year makes changes in the law directing aid to impoverished students, but denies the revisions are that far-reaching. The governor’s aides said the proposal, outlined Jan. 17, provides substantial new money for districts with high needs.

The debate revolves around a law initiated in 2007 by then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer that established a new formula for distributing money called “foundation aid.” The formula folded 30 existing categories of aid into one, while potentially directing more assistance to students whose families’ income is below the poverty threshold, who qualify for subsidized lunches or who speak limited English.

Spitzer’s initiative was in response to a school finance lawsuit brought by New York City parents and others, who successfully argued that the city’s school system was underfunded.

Cuomo has called for a $1 billion, 4 percent increase in school assistance statewide, including $428 million in additional foundation aid. Under that blueprint, Long Island would get a total increase of nearly $98.58 million, or 3.3 percent, including $40.4 million in foundation aid.

Nassau County school leaders are scheduled to weigh in on funding issues Friday morning at a Westbury forum. Suffolk leaders will hold a similar meeting Saturday in Middle Island.

The governor’s aides said the proposal brings the state’s aid distribution up to date by using poverty numbers from recent years, rather than relying on data from the 2000 census.

Morris Peters, a spokesman for the state’s Division of the Budget, described the proposed spending plan as progressive.

“Any suggestion that the foundation aid formula has or will be eliminated is a direct attempt to mislead the public and factually untrue,” Peters said.

Statewide organizations representing school boards and superintendents described Cuomo’s $1 billion proposal as a “good” or “credible” starting point for negotiations with state legislators. Those talks are supposed to culminate in a final budget agreement by April 1.

However, there was an uproar among Albany education leaders over the budget plan related to foundation aid. They said it eliminates language from the 2007 foundation-aid law that would generate an additional $4 billion-plus in school money once the statute is fully phased in — a multiyear process.

“The governor’s proposal to essentially repeal the foundation aid formula is a disappointing retreat,” said Robert Lowry Jr., deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, representing more than 800 administrators statewide.

Lowry added that the current formula should be retained because it is “making state funding decisions more transparent and decision-makers more accountable.”

Some Long Island school leaders agreed.

Kishore Kuncham, superintendent of the Freeport school district, called proposed changes in the law’s language “really dangerous and irresponsible.” Kuncham serves as president of REFIT, a consortium of low-wealth districts that advocates for increased state funding.

Blanca Villanueva, a Brentwood resident and regional school advocate, voiced similar concerns.

“We’re in danger of going backwards,” said Villanueva, who is Long Island education organizer for the Alliance for Quality Education, an Albany-based group that focuses on the needs of low-income communities.

Supporters of Cuomo’s plan have suggested that a $4 billion aid increase is unsustainable at a time when the state faces a potential budget deficit.

State Budget Director Robert Mujica, in an op-ed article published in March in an upstate newspaper, described calls for extra billions in foundation aid as “a misguided rallying cry for those with a vested interest in growing the education bureaucracy.”

Another argument raised in favor of revamping the foundation-aid formula is that it never fully achieved its advertised goal of shifting large shares of money to poorer districts.

One analyst, David Friedfel, in a report published last month, noted that the foundation-aid law contains fiscal floors and ceilings that limit the share of new money awarded each year to low-wealth districts, while assuring that wealthier districts also get a share.

As a result, he said, high-need districts such as Freeport, Hempstead and Roosevelt have lost thousands of dollars in state funding for which they otherwise would qualify.

“The current formula and also the governor’s proposed formula continue to send substantial aid to wealthy districts,” said Friedfel, who is director of state studies for the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group based in Albany.

Friedfel’s report, “A Better Foundation Aid Formula,” says that the state could hold increases in school aid to a relatively modest $569 million annually statewide if a revised formula better targeted aid to districts with demonstrated needs.

School representatives contested that assertion, noting that state cap limits on local tax revenues make most districts increasingly dependent on state assistance.

“Their position certainly would be something that would hurt many districts on Long Island, that’s for sure,” said Charles Russo, superintendent of East Moriches schools, referring to Friedfel’s recommendations.

Russo is president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association.

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