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LI gets $4.5M in oft-criticized state 'bullet' aid

A student uses their calculator to figure out

A student uses their calculator to figure out a math problem on May 1, 2013. Credit: Heather Walsh

ALBANY - Long Island gained more than $4 million in extra aid to school districts, libraries and nonprofit groups through state "bullet aid," a secretive practice long derided as thinly disguised pork-barrel spending.

Of the $29 million in extra aid doled out by the Senate's Republican majority and the Assembly's Democratic majority, Nassau County school districts and other groups received $2.6 million while Suffolk County districts and groups received $1.9 million, according to Senate and Assembly records.

Legislators say the bullet aid -- called that because it is targeted to specific needs -- helps school districts and others avoid teacher layoffs, meet unexpected costs or make sure they stay within the 2 percent cap on property tax growth. But good government groups note that the decisions aren't discussed publicly and that the recipients -- most of which are schools -- aren't identified until after the spending is set, nor are the reasons why they are getting the money.

"It is absolutely a very bad way to allocate public dollars," said Tammy P. Gamerman, senior research associate of the New York City-based Citizens Budget Commission, a watchdog group. "School funding should be based on need. It should be based on the local district's ability to raise money on their own. It shouldn't be based on politics."

The big winners on Long Island include Brentwood Union Free School District, which received $400,000, the Wyandanch Union Free School District, which got $200,000, and nearly a half-dozen other districts that each received $100,000.

Most of the grants total less than $100,000. For example, the Bethpage Union Free School District got $20,000 and the Roosevelt Union Free School District received $25,000.

Part of the aid headed to Long Island includes $25,000 to the Rockville Centre Union Free School District and $50,000 to the Rockville Centre Public Library, which was allocated under then-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre). Skelos stepped down from his leadership post earlier this year because he is facing federal corruption charges.

More than two dozen school districts on Long Island received no additional aid.

The biggest recipients statewide included the Poughkeepsie City School District, which received $1 million, and two high schools in Buffalo, which each received $375,000. Binghamton city schools received $150,000 and the Morrisville State College's reading program got $300,000.

"The school aid formula can't account for every situation among the nearly 700 school districts statewide, so this is funding that will help smooth out those differences and target extra funding to schools that need it," said Michael Whyland, spokesman for the Assembly's Democratic majority.

"For example a school district may be running a deficit due to local level decisions, so things like after-school programs would have to be cut," Whyland said. " . . . This aid helps address these needs in a very targeted way."

The Senate's Republican majority agreed these variables are taken into account.

"These additional funds are intended to smooth out inequities in the school aid formula and are distributed based on need," said spokesman Scott Reif.

But John Kaehny of the Reinvent Albany good-government group criticized the practice. "School bullet aid is based on political power, not the needs of children," he said. "The rich districts get richer and the poor stay poor."

The funding was approved in lump sums in the state budget, adopted on April 1. Most of the schools receiving the aid weren't identified until the bill was tied into the "big ugly" deal at the end of the 2015 session. The deal linked many disparate issues and was adopted June 25.

The allocations also reflect the ideologies of Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats. For example, the Alliance for Quality Education, a school aid advocate, lobbied the Assembly to exclude charter schools from the aid, which compete with traditional schools for students. In contrast, the Senate Republicans plan will devote millions of dollars to charter schools in bullet aid in 2016-17.

"We believe all school aid should be delivered through a fair and transparent formula," said Billy Easton, executive director of AQE. "However, if the Legislature is going to give out bullet aid they should give it to needy public schools and not to privately run charter schools."

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