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Long IslandEducation

LI schools jockey for state aid in annual fight for a larger share

Leaders in the Westbury and Brentwood districts say overcrowded classrooms and cutbacks in the number of class periods reflect inadequate state financial assistance.

State Sen. Robert Jackson (D-Manhattan), top center, looks

State Sen. Robert Jackson (D-Manhattan), top center, looks on as Westbury Middle School students crowd the halls between classes on Wednesday. Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

Westbury and Brentwood school leaders aired a long list of troubles on Wednesday — everything from overcrowded classes to losses of lunch time — as part of a statewide campaign aimed at generating more state funding for districts that serve large numbers of low-income families. 

At Westbury Middle School, which has chronic problems with overcrowding, a visiting group of state lawmakers and others saw classrooms set up in a basement, throngs of students jamming hallways and teachers working in cubicles lining both sides of a narrow passage. Visitors also heard from students themselves.

"I think the classrooms should be smaller — not in size, but in numbers of students," said Katherine Hendricks, 13, an eighth-grader. "There's a math class of, like, 31 students, and it's hard for the teacher to meet individual needs."

Statewide, the annual scrum is underway among school districts on Long Island,in  New York City and other regions, all fighting for a bigger share of state assistance. 

For poorer districts, one goal this year is to expand the availability of "foundation aid" — state money earmarked largely for students counted as economically disadvantaged or who speak languages other than English.

In Brentwood, Superintendent Richard Loeschner told visitors that inadequate state funding there had forced the district's high school to reduce daily schedules to eight class periods, rather than the usual nine. As a result, he said, elective courses have been canceled and many students lack time for lunch. 

"Let's go on fighting," Loeschner said of the campaign for more state assistance. "The students in Brentwood deserve exactly what's provided the students in Jericho or out in the Hamptons." 

A leading figure in the struggle, state Sen. Robert Jackson (D-Manhattan), was in Brentwood and Westbury, urging residents to put pressure on Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other elected officials to enlarge the pot of foundation money.

A landmark lawsuit filed by Jackson and other New York City parents in 1993 contended that underfunding of schools there deprived students of their constitutional right to a "sound, basic education." The legal action was influential in persuading the state in 2007 to establish foundation aid. 

 "New York owes four billion dollars to the children of the state," Jackson told one audience on Wednesday. 

The Cuomo administration disagrees. It proposes to raise foundation funding by $338 million statewide for the 2019-20 school year, and contends it has no legal obligation to provide more.

The state’s current aid package is generated by more than a dozen different formulas. Foundation aid is the biggest category, providing about $17.8 billion to districts statewide, including more than $2 billion on Long Island.

The issue is back in court. 

Meanwhile, educators in many of the Island's other districts, particularly those with a middle-class economic profile, are warning that foundation funding would not provide them much help, and that the bulk of any money added to that program was most likely  to benefit New York City. 

William Johnson, superintendent of Rockville Centre schools and a frequent speaker on financial issues, maintains that the wisest course for the majority of the Island's districts is to focus on another category of state aid that reimburses districts for expenses such as bus transportation and computer purchases.

"What works best at this time for most districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties is the expense-driven aid," said Johnson, a former president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. "Foundation aid would have to be significantly altered in order to bring us up to the same level." 

The state’s assistance to the 124 public school districts across Nassau and Suffolk counties in the current school year totals more than $2.9 billion and is nearly 25 percent of the money spent, on average, by those systems. For the poorest districts, state aid accounts for more than half of revenues.

Statewide, the aid outlook grew more uncertain last week, when Cuomo announced that state income-tax revenues were down $2.8 billion from what  had been projected. The governor said the shortfall would force him to reconsider state spending on schools and other priorities, though he provided few details.

Cuomo and state legislators, under law, are supposed to agree on a final state budget for next year, including school aid, by April 1.  School districts factor that financial assistance into their local budgets, which will be submitted to voters on May 21.

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