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LI educator: Cuomo’s school aid increase is ‘anemic’

William Johnson, superintendent of the Rockville Centre school

William Johnson, superintendent of the Rockville Centre school district, speaks at the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents' Financial Forum at the East Meadow district's administrative center on Friday, Feb. 3, 2017. Credit: Steve Pfost

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposed school aid increase for 2017-18 is “anemic” and falls well short of the billion dollars he promised last month, a leading Long Island educator told a regional forum Friday.

Cuomo, in his Jan. 17 budget message, announced a $1 billion, 4 percent hike in statewide financial assistance to public schools next year. The governor called his planned aid package “the largest in the history of New York.”

Statewide education groups based in Albany credited the proposal as a “good start” but questioned certain details. On Friday, Rockville Centre school Superintendent William Johnson went a step further by suggesting that Cuomo had exaggerated the amount of money actually targeted to local districts.

“The anemic proposal from the governor has put us on notice,” Johnson, a past president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, told an audience of about 150 regional school representatives at the East Meadow district’s administrative center. “The governor said he came in with an extra $1 billion. Actually, it was $768 million.”

Johnson spoke at an annual Financial Forum, sponsored by the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents. The event traditionally includes a critique of gubernatorial budget proposals and appeals for additional state funding.

A spokesman for the state Division of the Budget later called Johnson’s remarks “disingenuous and misleading.”

The $768 million figure cited by Johnson is the combined aid increase specifically earmarked for the state’s nearly 700 school districts, as shown on computerized rundowns generated in Albany.

Under Cuomo’s proposed budget, total state assistance would reach a record $25.6 billion statewide.

The spending plan includes additional education money, not yet divided among districts, which would bring the statewide increase to $960.98 million, or 3.9 percent. That includes a $150 million “fiscal stabilization fund” that state lawmakers would divvy up among districts at a later date.

Johnson and other local school administrators have contended that use of such figures is misleading, in part because districts cannot count on money not detailed in the itemized, district-by-district lists known as “runs.”

Educators also voiced concern that the governor will use the “fiscal stabilization fund” money as a bargaining chip, by allowing legislators to distribute those funds without providing any additional cash beyond that already on the table.

Officials in the state Budget Division responded that school aid growth in recent years has far outstripped expansion of other state programs, and that the same will be true in 2017-18.

“Funds will be distributed to school districts by formula or by grant, but all $25.6 billion will be green,” spokesman Morris Peters said.

Peters added that “to strip out a portion and then call the growth ‘anemic’ is disingenuous and misleading.”

A detailed analysis of the district-by-district aid “runs,” which were released Jan. 18, shows that increases in Nassau and Suffolk counties fall short of the 4 percent statewide rate cited by the administration. That analysis also shows the overall proposed aid increase for the Island’s 124 districts is less than the additional state aid the governor proposed for the current school year.

Overall aid for the Nassau-Suffolk region, including reimbursement for school construction and renovation, would rise by $98.5 million, or 3.3 percent. Operating aid, which does not include reimbursement for construction and renovation, would increase $75.3 million, or 2.8 percent.

Many fiscal experts consider the latter figure the best indicator of aid levels, because it covers money available for day-to-day school operations.

Last year, Cuomo proposed an overall aid increase for Long Island’s districts of $126.7 million, or 4.5 percent. That included a hike in day-to-day operating aid of $105.6 million, or 4.2 percent.

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