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Long Island school districts may recover $117M in lost state aid

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) on

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016, pledged that restoring lost school aid would be the Senate's top education priority. Credit: AP / Mike Groll

Long Island school districts stand to recover more than $117 million in lost state financial aid during the coming year, according to the region’s education leaders, who say the money will help compensate for tighter state property tax limits.

The lost money, known as the Gap Elimination Adjustment or GEA, was cut from districts’ revenues in 2010 and 2011, in response to a statewide fiscal crunch. Albany began restoring the money gradually in 2012, though many school administrators in Nassau and Suffolk counties complained the pace of recovery was far too slow.

Now hopes are growing that the balance of state funding owed districts will be paid back entirely during the 2016-17 school year. The latest and strongest signal of support for complete restoration of funding came last week from State Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport).

“Suffolk School Superintendents Association is delighted with this commitment,” said Susan Schnebel, superintendent of Islip schools. She added that the funding restoration, which state authorities initially promised in April, could deliver more than $1.3 million to her district alone.

Other districts that could recover substantial money include Sachem, with $9.1 million on the line; Longwood, $4.3 million; Three Village, $3.3 million; and Levittown, $2.5 million.

Schnebel, who is president of the Suffolk school chiefs organization, said the extra money would help districts cope with increasing state cap limitations on local property taxes.

State law bars districts from raising taxes by more than 2 percent a year or the inflation rate, whichever is less. Inflation has run so low in recent months that experts expect the statewide cap limit for 2016-17 to hover around zero.

The state Comptroller’s Office will announce the exact limit later this month.

Last week, Flanagan, addressing the Senate in its opening-day session, pledged that restoration would be the Senate’s No. 1 education priority this year.

“We will not have a budget if the GEA is not eliminated,” Flanagan declared. “It’s been there far too long.”

The Senate majority leader, together with the Assembly speaker and governor, are traditionally Albany’s three most powerful decision-makers on budget questions. Any of the three can block passage of a state budget, at least temporarily.

In 2010-2011, the state, facing a massive budget deficit, began cutting aid in amounts that eventually totaled $2.7 billion from districts across the state.

Starting in 2012-2013, the state began restoring cut aid in a progressive manner, with the largest payments going to the poorest districts.

As with most budget decisions, an agreement to restore all of the $433.5 million still pending statewide would help some districts more than others.

Complete repayment of the balance in 2016-17 would benefit wealthy and middle-class districts more than districts with concentrations of impoverished students, some say.

The state’s Board of Regents, with representatives from every corner of the state, debated whether to restore all the aid at once or over a period of two years or more. In December, the 17-member board voted unanimously to recommend erasing the entire balance during the coming year.

The board’s rationale was that state leaders had committed themselves to this in April, when they adopted the 2015-16 budget.

“We made a promise,” said James Tallon, who heads a Regents committee on state aid. Tallon formerly represented the Binghamton area in the state Assembly, where he was Democratic majority leader.

Not everyone accepts that rationale.

The Alliance for Quality Education, a statewide coalition of education groups including teacher unions, contends that all additional state financial assistance allotted to districts in 2016-17 should be distributed according to the state’s “foundation” formula, which gives extra weight in funding distribution to districts with students who are poor or non-English speaking. The biggest shares of foundation aid go to school systems in New York City and other urban and poor suburban areas.

“We have huge inequalities in this state, and foundation aid deals with that,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the Albany-based Alliance. “If you address GEA first, you’re actually going to expand inequality.”

Easton and other Alliance representatives held a news conference Sunday afternoon on the steps of New York’s city hall in Manhattan to underline their point.

State lawmakers are expected this spring to approve a generous state-aid package, with elections approaching in November. The Regents have recommended a $2.4 billion boost, with $1.3 billion going to foundation aid and more than $400 million to GEA restoration.

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