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Governor proposes shift in distribution of financial aid for school districts

Lila Corwin, left, Mia Ranghelli, Colton Ranghelli and

Lila Corwin, left, Mia Ranghelli, Colton Ranghelli and Johnathan Ranghelli were among more than 300 students, parents and officials who filled the auditorium at Riverhead Middle School on Saturday calling for the school district to receive its fair share of foundation aid funding. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Tuesday proposed a shift in distribution of the state’s financial aid to schools statewide that was sweeping in scope, but short on specifics, and offered substantially less money than he advocated for last year.

At one point in his annual budget message, the governor, now in his 10th year in office, called for an end to the traditional division of money among regions of the state known as “shares.” The arrangement, carefully calibrated from a political standpoint, once guaranteed the Nassau-Suffolk region between 12% and 13% of whatever additional aid money was approved by lawmakers in a given year.

The proposed shift, Cuomo said, was part of a broader plan that would bring greater equity to a funding system that now results in some of the state’s public schools spending as much as $36,000 per student, with others spending as little as $13,000. Another part of the plan would overhaul the state’s main formula for distributing money known as foundation aid.

“That is an outrage, my friends,” the governor told an auditorium filled with state government officials, news reporters and others, referring to disparities in school spending. “The current formula is designed to achieve political need — not equity.”

However, Cuomo’s vision for greater equity in funding comes with a proposed increase in money that is actually smaller than last year’s.

For the 2020-21 school year, he is calling for a statewide hike of $826 million, or 3%, to a total of $28.5 billion.   The increase the governor proposed at this time last year to help cover school expenses in 2019-20 was for about $1 billion, or 3.6% statewide.

On Long Island, school officials said it was difficult to say much about the governor’s plan until they had a chance to go over details of how much extra money would go to each of the region’s 124 school districts.

Cuomo aides told reporters at an afternoon briefing, following the budget speech, that such details were not yet available, but would be posted later on a state website. They did not give a specific time when the computerized district-by-district data, known as “runs,” would be made public.

“Until we see the ‘runs,’ it’s going to be hard to know how this affects our schools on Long Island,” said Lorraine Deller, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association.   

William Johnson, superintendent of Rockville Centre schools and an expert on state funding, said he normally would have expected a plan for financial overhaul as ambitious as the governor’s to be accompanied by more money. 

“I’m disappointed it’s $826 million,” Johnson said.   

The budget message Tuesday came at a moment of fiscal uncertainty.

In November, the state Budget Division reported that New York faced a potential deficit in the next fiscal year of more than $6 billion — the biggest funding gap in 10 years. Most of the gap was said to be due to rising Medicare costs.

More recently, however, tax revenues through December came in $1.3 billion ahead of projections. The governor also promised to find savings in the Medicaid program, though key Democratic legislators ruled out any cuts there.

In addition to fiscal pressures, Albany also is confronting growing demands from school districts in poor communities around the state for a greater share of state revenues. On Long Island, for example, school leaders in communities such as Brentwood, Hempstead, Westbury and Wyandanch all have spoken out on their need for more money.

At the state level, organizations representing teacher unions, school boards and other groups have united in calling for annual hikes of $2 billion in school aid statewide — double what the governor and legislature provided last year — without being specific about where the extra money could be found. Locally, many educators have emphasized they are not calling for a “Robin Hood” approach that would provide more cash for poor school systems by taking money away from wealthier systems.

“We don’t want to steal anybody’s piece of the pie,” said Michael Hynes, superintendent of Port Washington schools, who was speaking at a regional conference on funding held in November in Seaford. “We just want to make sure the pie is much larger and fully funded so we can move forward.”

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