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School-aid prediction: Up from Cuomo proposal, less than this year’s amount

William Johnson, superintendent of Rockville Centre schools, gives

William Johnson, superintendent of Rockville Centre schools, gives the keynote speech at the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents' education forum on Friday, Feb. 9, 2018, in Westbury. Credit: Howard Schnapp

A veteran Long Island educator predicted Friday that Albany ultimately will approve between $800 million and $900 million in extra school aid statewide for the 2018-19 year — more than the increase proposed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo but less than this year’s figure.

Cuomo administration officials have described the state’s current budget situation as the toughest they’ve faced in six years, because of a looming deficit.

However, William Johnson, superintendent of Rockville Centre schools, noted in a keynote speech to an education forum that New York is headed for statewide elections in November. In such years, lawmakers generally have been generous in their state-aid allotments for public schools.

“We must keep in mind that this is an election year, and that gives us hope,” Johnson told about 200 school administrators, board members and others gathered at the Leon J. Campo Salisbury Center in Westbury. “They do not want us to be a problem for them in November.”

Johnson, a former president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, spoke at an annual financial forum of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents.

Last April, the governor and legislators agreed on an expansive $1.1 billion, 4 percent increase in school aid for the 2017-18 school year.

Since then, the economic outlook has soured. New York State faces a budget deficit that must be closed, and recent federal reductions in deductions for state and local taxes mean that many of the state’s taxpayers face increased financial pressures.

Cuomo, in his proposed budget released last month, included a school-aid increase smaller than what he put forward at the same time last year.

The governor’s latest plan would raise school aid statewide by $769 million, or 3 percent, to a total of slightly more than $26.3 billion.

Expert analysts pointed to details in the governor’s budget that suggest Johnson’s projection of an $800 million to $900 million aid increase could well be on target.

For example, $50 million set aside in Cuomo’s spending plan for designated Community Schools — those that offer public services such as health care — is listed separately from the proposed $769 million aid increase. That could give state legislators extra dollars to add to the package.

Cuomo, early in his tenure, set a policy of raising school aid each year by an amount equal to at least percentage increases in personal income. His proposed increases have exceeded that goal, providing school districts with a degree of financial predictability.

At the same time, the governor has been slow in releasing details of his aid plans, leaving school districts uncertain of how much money to expect.

On Jan. 16, for example, Cuomo announced a 3 percent expansion of financial assistance, describing the increase as double what would have been allowed if he had simply matched growth in personal income.

A breakdown showing distribution of the money district-by-district was not released until six hours later, leaving many local school officials unable to comment that day on the impact.

Newsday’s analysis of proposed aid distribution for the 124 districts across Nassau and Suffolk counties found that the average increase in school operating assistance — considered by many fiscal experts to be the most significant figure — was 2.3 percent.

Some state-level education groups have questioned the governor’s approach. A Feb. 5 publication of the New York State School Boards Association carried this headline: “Why Cuomo’s proposed 3% aid boost wouldn’t be that for most districts.”

Cuomo aides responded that while some forms of financial assistance are not distributed to all school districts — funding for public prekindergarten programs, for instance — such aid should legitimately be considered part of the overall budget.

“It’s just a mathematical reality,” said Morris Peters, spokesman for the governor’s budget division.

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