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LI schools to get $157 million more in state aid, most since '08

Long Island's 124 school districts will get more

Long Island's 124 school districts will get more than $2.5 billion in state aid for the 2015-16 school year. Credit: Heather Walsh

Long Island public schools will get an additional $157 million in state operating aid -- the biggest hike since the 2008 financial crash -- as part of a controversial package of financial incentives and education initiatives that Albany lawmakers  passed early Wednesday.

The extra financial assistance brings the total in the Island's 124 districts to more than $2.5 billion for the 2015-16 school year -- the highest amount ever. It includes more than $100 million aimed at restoring aid cuts in Nassau and Suffolk imposed during the economic downturn in 2009-10 and 2010-11.

Restoration of the cutbacks, known as the Gap Elimination Adjustment, or GEA, was the No. 1 fiscal priority for the Island's school leaders. Legislators have pledged full restitution by 2016-17.

"From a local perspective, we're thankful to our local legislators," said Roberta Gerold, superintendent of Middle Country schools and president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association. "They do work hard for Long Island."

Middle Country will get more than $7 million in additional state aid, a 9.6 percent increase.

Statewide, the aid package for the 2015-16 school year adds $1.4 billion -- nearly 6 percent -- to the $22 billion-plus investment in public education for grades K-12.

The extra state money comes with strings attached: School districts will be required to adopt new systems of evaluating teachers' job performance that will involve far greater state direction -- and less local control.

In addition, student scores on tests aligned with the Common Core academic standards will play a larger role in teachers' ratings, and evaluators could be brought in from outside local districts to help judge educators' performance in classrooms. The state, rather than districts, will decide how classroom observations are to be scored.

The new evaluation system is to be put into place by June 30. The budget includes language that calls for the state education commissioner and Education Department staff to draft regulations for the ratings system.

Districts and their teacher unions will be required to approve new plans, including the portion of evaluations decided locally, by Nov. 15 or face loss of state-aid increases.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo pushed for the changes on grounds that the evaluation system in place until now, controlled mostly by local districts and teacher unions, was not producing realistic ratings. Less than one-half of 1 percent of the Island's teachers and principals were deemed "ineffective" in the latest round of evaluations.

"We turned that on its head," an administration official who asked not to be named said Tuesday. "What we know doesn't work is a locally bargained system."

Many school leaders on Long Island, while appreciative of the additional financial assistance, worry that tougher evaluations based heavily on test scores will prompt more teachers to drill students for exams and convince more parents that they should boycott the state assessments. Testing for grades 3-8 in English Language Arts is scheduled April 14 to 16 and in math April 22 to 24.

"First of all, I think it's a very generous aid package," said William Johnson, the Rockville Centre schools chief and a former president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

"It remains to be seen what happens to this entire reform effort, however," added Johnson, whose district is among the highest-achieving in the region. "Any time you have an evaluation system tied to test scores, it changes the whole flavor of public education. And I don't think they realize what they have done."

"The only way to stop this is to refuse the test," said Diane Venezia Livingston, an attorney who lives in Port Washington and has three children in public schools.

Livingston, who is co-founder of a local group, Port Washington Advocates for Public Education, has pulled her children out of past state tests and plans to do so again this month.

Two state-level organizations, the superintendents council and the New York State School Boards Association, which usually welcome increases in state aid, denounced the move toward more stringent job evaluations.

"The well-known definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result," the two groups said in a joint statement Tuesday. They noted that this was the fourth time since 2010 that Albany has revised portions of teacher and principal evaluations.

The Cuomo administration, however, contends that its agenda represents a sharp departure from past practices. One change will require teachers to work in classrooms four years to earn job tenure, rather than three years as in the past, and only those rated "effective" or better for three years or more will be eligible for tenure.

Mary Jones, superintendent of Wyandanch schools, is one administrator who agrees with the change in tenure rules.

"It gives us more time to really cogently evaluate teachers," she said. "Three years didn't give us enough time."

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