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Long Island would get millions extra in school aid in Cuomo-proposed budget

Combined operating aid for the 124 school districts

Combined operating aid for the 124 school districts in the region next year would total more than $3 billion under Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's budget, which is subject to revision by the State Legislature. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

ALBANY — Long Island school districts could receive millions of dollars in extra school aid for the 2020-21 academic year, according to a state breakdown of money in a redistribution plan proposed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

Under the governor’s plan, which came as a surprise to many Island officials, schools in the Nassau-Suffolk region would receive a combined aid hike of $87.7 million in operating aid, or 2.9%, for the next school year. That’s up from the $59.2 million, 2% increase proposed for the region under the governor’s budget at this time last year.

Combined operating aid for the 124 school districts in the region next school year would total more than $3 billion under Cuomo’s budget, which is subject to revision by the State Legislature. That figure includes state money used for day-to-day expenses of districts, and excludes money used for school construction and renovation.

On Tuesday afternoon, in his annual budget message, Cuomo called for a smaller statewide aid increase than last year, prompting some local school officials to brace for lower allotments. Later that night, however, the governor’s budget staff posted district-by-district figures showing larger-than-expected increases for many of the Island’s systems.

Local school leaders, as they began analyzing the state’s figures Wednesday, said the extra dollars proposed seemed to reflect a change in state calculations, taking greater account of recent growth in needy students in this region. Such students included those living in poverty or speaking limited English, local officials said.

Some analysts also pointed to the fact that many upstate districts have lost enrollment faster than districts downstate, and that this might have helped determine aid allotments.

“It would appear that, on the basis of changing demographics, we on the Island become eligible for a greater percentage of total aid,” said William Johnson, superintendent of Rockville Centre schools and a regional authority on funding issues.

Johnson added he was “pleased with the bottom line” for Long Island, but would continue to analyze data to determine the impact on other areas of the state.

New York State faces a potential $6 billion budget deficit in the coming year, due in large part to growing Medicaid expenses.

Cuomo on Tuesday cited fiscal concerns in calling for a statewide school-aid increase of $826 million — down more than $170 million from what he proposed at this time last year. The governor has pressed for an overhaul of the way such money is distributed to individual districts, to lessen what he described as outrageous disparities in funding available to wealthier systems as opposed to poorer ones.

Cuomo, a Democrat, described the ideal funding system as one in which “it doesn’t matter what ZIP code you’re born in, it doesn’t matter what county you’re born in, you have the same access to education.”

Some Democratic legislative leaders, who must approve a final budget by April 1, welcomed the governor’s remarks as headed in the right direction.

“I’m happy that we’re having a conversation around equity,” said State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Westchester), in a meeting with reporters Tuesday.

Still, there were reservations about various aspects of the aid overhaul, particularly elimination of many categories of aid known as “reimbursables.” These are state payments to districts covering costs of expenses such as fees charged by regional BOCES.

Cuomo’s plan would fold 10 categories of reimbursement aid into a larger pool. Many suburban districts depend heavily on reimbursement assistance, in part because it is predictable. Critics of the governor’s plan voiced concerns Wednesday that state assistance in the future could become less predictable and more uncertain.

“I could see how it cuts down on some of the paperwork,” said state Assemb. Ed Ra (R-Franklin Square), referring to the proposed streamlining of aid categories. “But what does that mean going into the future?”

Julie Lutz, chief operating officer of Eastern Suffolk BOCES, noted that state lawmakers in the past have balked at similar proposals aimed at reimbursement aid. “We’ve always pushed back on that,” she said.

A look through the state’s rolls of Long Island districts shows that larger aid allotments are proposed for many poorer districts. Wyandanch, for example, would receive an increase of 6.42%; Westbury, 6.34%; Roosevelt, 4.56%, and Central Islip, 4.06%.

There are exceptions, however. Nicole Epstein, a spokeswoman for the Hempstead district, which is considered the poorest in Nassau County, said Wednesday that the 2.28% hike proposed for that system would come nowhere near meeting its needs.

Epstein said she hoped state lawmakers representing her area would make this point “loud and clear in Albany.”

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