An influential Long Island state senator predicted Saturday that lawmakers would hike next year's statewide school aid by more than the $1.1 billion offered by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, and that at least $550 million of that would go toward restoring funds cut in the wake of the Great Recession.
State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), chairman of the Education Committee, rejected Cuomo's public assertions that he might hold next year's statewide aid increase to as little as $370 million, if legislators do not approve his proposals for tougher teacher evaluations and other changes in the public school system.
"I am very confident that the $1.1 billion is the floor -- we will add money," Flanagan told 250 school board trustees, administrators and other educators meeting in Middle Island.
The senator spoke, along with other GOP and Democratic lawmakers, at an annual legislative breakfast held at Longwood Middle School.
Legislators, in most years, approve bigger school-aid packages than governors propose. Even so, Flanagan's pledge yesterdayprovided a little extra relief for local school officials who have expected tense budget negotiations in Albany this season.
Cuomo has refused in recent weeks to spell out how much financial aid individual school districts might get in 2015-16, saying only that the statewide increase could range from as little as $370 million, or 1.7 percent, to as much as $1.1 billion, or 4.8 percent.
The governor has pushed, meanwhile, for legislation that he contends would promote better job performance by school administrators and teachers. He repeated this Thursday during a regional appearance on the Island.
"I don't want to throw good money after bad," Cuomo said at Farmingdale State College. "If we have a real evaluation system and we're closing these failing schools, then I say let's invest over $1 billion, putting our money where our mouth is."
He has also threatened not to sign off on next year's budget by the April 1 deadline unless lawmakers approve other proposals he has advanced to clean up corruption in the state Capitol. Such a move could leave legislators with the distasteful choice of either going along with Cuomo's agenda or shutting down state government.
Senate Republicans hold a fairly strong negotiating position because they won an absolute majority of seats in November's election. Flanagan is their point man on school issues.
"I was pleasantly surprised," said Bob Vecchio, school board president in the William Floyd district, after hearing Flanagan's remarks.
William Floyd, like many districts on Suffolk County's South Shore, lacks a large commercial tax base and depends on state aid for more than 40 percent of its revenue.
Audience members also welcomed Flanagan's promised restoration next year of at least half the $1.l billion still owed districts for aid cuts imposed several years ago in order to close a state budget gap.
Regaining those lost funds, known as the Gap Elimination Adjustment is the top legislative priority of most school leaders in Nassau and Suffolk. Many would like to see the entire $1.1 billion restored next year.
The state Board of Regents has called for a $2 billion aid increase next year. Flanagan said yesterdaySaturday that raising assistance by that much would pose an "extraordinary challenge."
Michael Lonergan, the Longwood school superintendent and host of Saturday'smeeting, said Flanagan's remarks left him "encouraged and thankful."
Lonergan added that his district remained anxious to restore the 41 teaching and administrative positions cut in response to previous years' state-aid reductions.
"This is just the start of getting back to where we were," Lonergan said.