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Educators: Cuomo aid plan shortchanges Long Island school districts

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks before Nassau

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks before Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano is sworn into office for his second term in Bethpage. (Jan. 2, 2014) Credit: Howard Schnapp

Regional rivalries are mounting over distribution of more than $21 billion in state school aid, with Long Island education leaders contending their area gets shortchanged in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's latest budget.

Frustrated school superintendents in Nassau and Suffolk counties said the governor's proposal favors New York City and upstate school districts in the way it parcels out $682 million in new statewide aid for the 2014-15 academic year.

Allotments for K-12 classrooms would be driven largely through changes in a funding provision known as the Gap Elimination Adjustment, or GEA. The adjustment, introduced in 2009-10, allowed the state to withhold a portion of aid money over the next two years in order to help reduce an estimated $10 billion budget deficit.

Cuomo restored some funding in 2012-13 and 2013-14, and his new budget would do so again next year. The largest payments would go to districts deemed neediest by the state.

School officials on the Island say this approach works against their region because of its greater average wealth, while overlooking the region's higher living costs. They want the money restored more evenly.

"As funds were taken away in hard times, the money was taken away from Long Island at a higher rate," said Gary Bixhorn, chief operating officer of Eastern Suffolk BOCES, who outlined school-finance issues Saturday at a regional conference in Holbrook.

"And now that times are better, money is being restored at a lower rate," Bixhorn added.

Upstate and in New York City, many educators object to such arguments, saying their schools have pressing needs also.

"This regional approach does not play out well -- it has not served children well," said Rick Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, an advocacy group based in East Syracuse.

Timbs' organization represents about 420 districts, most located upstate, but with a couple on the Island.

More GEA money sought

School representatives throughout the state do agree on one point: They say that Cuomo's austere approach to K-12 funding would leave their districts with less aid -- or little more, at least -- than they received four or five years ago when the economy plunged.

This, educators add, is making it difficult to cope with state caps on property taxes.

Kishore Kuncham, superintendent of Freeport schools, said his district over the past four years has cut 128 staff jobs, consolidated sports teams and reduced student enrichment programs in response to aid cuts not yet fully restored.

"We feel horrible about that," Kuncham said. "Yes, it's an aid increase over last year, and last year was an increase over the year before. But it's still less than the 2008-09 level."

Cuomo, in his latest budget message, called for a hike of about 3.2 percent in K-12 school aid statewide. State lawmakers predict that substantially more money than that will be added by the April 1 deadline for budget approval.

Bixhorn and other regional representatives contend the most direct way to expand aid is through increased restoration of GEA money -- but in a manner that gives the Island's districts a greater share of money than Cuomo proposes.

Analysts at Eastern Suffolk BOCES, who reviewed the governor's plan, found it would restore 12.76 percent of GEA funding in Nassau and Suffolk, in contrast to 31.91 percent in New York City and 14.88 percent in the rest of the state.

The net effect would be slightly lower average aid increases on the Island than in New York City and statewide.

Some of the approximately 200 school administrators, teachers and others attending the Holbrook conference voiced exasperation over what they perceived as disparities in the state's restoration of GEA funding.

"That's unconscionable," said Dan Tomaszewski, president of the Longwood school board.

Guv's aides defend plan

Cuomo aides contend, on the other hand, that their aid-distribution plan is fair and progressive, because more than 70 percent of dollar increases would go to school systems with the highest needs. The state's "foundation-aid" formula, which covers most assistance, defines need largely as concentrations of students living in poverty, speaking limited English or receiving subsidized lunches.

Moreover, the governor's supporters give him high marks for getting the state's finances in order by reducing deficits and obtaining timely approvals of state budgets.

"New York has undergone a dramatic turnaround in the past three years," Cuomo said in his Jan. 21 budget message.

The governor added that the state was well on its way to transforming spending deficits into surpluses that would allow gradual upgrades in schools, road-and-bridge infrastructure and other services.

School leaders are demanding more immediate action, however.

Michael Rebell, executive director of the Manhattan-based Campaign for Educational Equity, said he agreed with educators elsewhere in the state that school aid needed to be increased substantially in 2014-15, though he disagreed that Island schools were shortchanged more than others.

As an attorney, Rebell helped win a 2006 court decision directing more financial support to New York City schools.

"I don't think it's fair for children of New York State generally," Rebell said of the governor's budget.

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