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LI educators can expect more school aid, no pension help, Flanagan says

State Sen. Tom Croci, left, and Senate Majority

State Sen. Tom Croci, left, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan at Longwood Middle School in Middle Island on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018. Credit: Daniel Goodrich

A key Long Island lawmaker said Saturday that the State Legislature would “definitely” expand a school-aid package proposed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, though he indicated the increase could be a modest one.

State Senate Majority Leader John J. Flanagan (R-East Northport) also disappointed some educators attending a breakfast conference in Middle Island, when he declined to offer help in authorizing reserve funds to pay rising costs of teacher pensions.

Flanagan, addressing 370 educators at Longwood Middle School, said that Cuomo, a Democrat, already had put forward a financial-assistance plan that was relatively generous, given the fiscal pressures now facing the state.

“The governor deserves credit for putting $769 million in his budget for education,” the majority leader said. “He didn’t have to do that.”

The annual Longwood meeting, which brings school superintendents and board members together with state and federal lawmakers, provides a regional kickoff for the annual school budget season.

Later, Flanagan, in answer to a reporter’s question, said the amount of money proposed by the governor would be increased, though he wouldn’t say by how much. This follows a familiar pattern in the annual budget process, where governors present lowball figures and legislators later raise the ante.

A final aid package is to be approved April 1, along with the rest of the state budget.

Cuomo’s call last month for a $769 million hike in statewide school aid would bring total annual school assistance to about $26.4 billion. Operating aid to individual school districts, including those in Nassau and Suffolk counties, would rise an average 2.3 percent.

That’s less than the governor offered last year. One compensation is that districts next year will be allowed to raise more money through local property taxes, because the state’s baseline cap restriction on taxation will go up to 2 percent — the highest limit since 2013-14.

School superintendents across the state had hoped that lawmakers would provide additional help, by allowing districts to set aside extra cash reserves to meet the costs of pensions covering teachers, guidance counselors and other professional school staffers.

Flanagan, however, told the breakfast conference that he thought Senate colleagues were “not comfortable” with taking such a step during the current legislative session. The majority leader explained that the Senate had approved such a measure previously, but the governor had vetoed it.

Lars Clemensen, president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, who also attended the conference, voiced disappointment. A teacher pension fund reserve, he said, would provide districts with greater predictability in their budgeting, because it would give them a financial cushion in years when pension costs rise.

“Call it a shock absorber,” said Clemensen, who is superintendent of Hampton Bays schools.

Pension costs are expected to rise about 10 percent next year, after three years of reductions, because analysts project lower growth in future pension stock earnings.

Another veteran lawmaker who appeared at the conference, Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) said the state should look for ways to reduce costs of pensions and other school expenses, especially in light of increasing fiscal pressures.

Cuomo and lawmakers face the need to eliminate a state budget deficit next year. Moreover, passage in December of a federal tax bill reducing deductions for state and local taxes has many experts warning of a probable rise in public resistance to higher school taxes.

Fitzpatrick said one way to reduce pension costs — and thus, school taxes — would be to establish defined-contribution pension plans similar to the 401(k) for newly hired teachers.

“We’ve got to give taxpayers some breathing room,” Fitzpatrick said.

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