Eighth-grade students in a science classroom at Longwood Junior High...

Eighth-grade students in a science classroom at Longwood Junior High School in Middle Island in January 2016. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

New York State's financial support for Long Island's public school operations in the 2019-20 academic year will reach $3 billion for the first time, but the increase from this year is the smallest percentage gain in eight years, analysis of new figures from Albany shows.

District-by-district dollar allotments in the new state budget show that combined operating aid for the 120-plus districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties will rise next year by $86.4 million, or 2.9 percent, to a total of just over $3 billion. The percentage gain keeps ahead of inflation, now running about 1.5 percent.

By way of comparison, state assistance for school operations in New York City will increase next year by $291.9 million, or 3 percent, to a total of $9.9 billion. Statewide aid will go up $745.9 million, or 3.2 percent, to a total $24 billion, according to preliminary computerized district aid "runs" released on Sunday.

The school-aid figures are part of next year's broader state budget totaling $175.6 billion, which was approved Monday morning.

Financial assistance for education in New York, while high compared with that provided by other states, has been growing at a lower rate in recent years. The slowdown reflects concerns voiced by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other state officials that a decline in state income-tax revenue could threaten stability of the state budget, if spending is allowed to rise too high.

The growth rate in operating funds, which peaked at 6.7 percent in 2015-16, dropped to 3.57 percent this year.

Newsday's analysis of the figures covers support for regular school operations only; it does not include reimbursements for school building construction and renovation, which vary from system to system. Districts' operating funds are widely regarded as a key barometer of trends in state education spending and are published annually by Newsday, drawn from the state school-aid data. 

Democratic lawmakers, who now control both the Senate and Assembly, defended the school assistance package, noting that it continues to rise as it has since 2012-13, when the state still was recovering from effects of the Great Recession. 

"Once again, this budget delivers more dollars to schools than ever before," said State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), a leader of the Island's newly elected majority delegation to the Senate. 

Kaminsky added that more work needs to be done in boosting state assistance for schools in the Nassau-Suffolk region, especially for those serving larger numbers of students from low-income families.

"We have to keep pushing the message to Albany that Long Island is not a uniformly wealthy area," he said.

On the question of whether the Democrats' takeover of the Senate produced a significant shift in aid distribution, education analysts noted that the Island had received nearly 13 percent of additional aid, while New York City, with a much larger school enrollment, received about 38 percent. These are the traditional "shares" going to the two regions — an indication that the status quo had been maintained, analysts said.

Generally, analysts said, schools in Nassau County appeared to do substantially better than those in Suffolk, with a boost in state money used to expand prekindergarten classes.      

Julie Lutz, chief operating officer of the regional Eastern Suffolk BOCES district, said she and other school officials in the region generally were grateful that the new school funding package was approved in a timely way and that lawmakers managed to include some additional money  beyond what Cuomo proposed in January.

"We know that state school aid is a big piece of the state budget, and we're appreciative of the work elected officials did to make sure schools are funded," Lutz said. 

Sunday's announcement of a state-aid package followed months of lobbying by school districts on the Island and elsewhere — an effort that each year is growing in intensity, especially in poorer districts. 

In mid-February, for example, Westbury school officials, who contend their district is shortchanged by the state, invited reporters to tour the local middle school, where overcrowding has forced some classes to relocate to a basement.

Months earlier, hundreds of students, teachers and others from Westbury, Brentwood and three other districts rallied outside a Mineola courthouse, demanding more state assistance for what they called a "coalition of the underfunded."

Figures released by the state Sunday show mixed results in the districts that spoke out earlier: a 2.98 percent increase in Brentwood, 1.67 percent in Hempstead, 14.12 percent in Uniondale, 6.24 percent in Westbury and 1.26 percent in Wyandanch.

Robert Feliciano, president of Brentwood's school board, voiced disappointment that lawmakers had not done more to expand "foundation" aid, which is the state's main formula for distributing extra money to districts with large numbers of students who are impoverished or non-English speaking. Brentwood is the Island's largest system, with an enrollment of 18,900 students, about 84 percent of whom are Latino.

"Any increase in school aid is appreciated, and we would like to thank our elected officials," Feliciano said. "However, it's no secret that many school districts were expecting a much more significant increase."

Cuomo had warned for months that a tight hold was needed on school aid and other state expenditures, in large part because of recent declines in state tax revenues. At one recent joint news conference, the governor's stance was supported by another elected official, state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, who has cautioned that close monitoring of revenue and economic conditions is imperative throughout the coming 2020 fiscal year. 

"It's math, the numbers have to add up," the governor said Friday. "I know everybody wants to spend everything; so do I. But there's still an economic reality and the fiscal integrity of the budget." 

With both chambers of the legislature and the governor's office controlled by Democrats, critics were quick to criticize Democratic lawmakers for what they perceived as flaws in the school-aid package — especially the funding amount of an additional $1 billion statewide, which was roughly half what major education groups had said was needed.

The Alliance for Quality Education, an Albany-based umbrella group of parents, teachers and others, was especially outspoken in its assessment that the package had done nothing to erase funding disparities between districts rich and poor.

"This year's budget is one of dashed hopes and deferred dreams," said Jasmine Gripper, legislative director for the alliance. "This time we cannot blame the Republicans." 

Republicans took their own shot, noting that both the Senate and Assembly had endorsed hikes of $1.6 billion in aid in the days leading up to budget adoption, then settled for much less. 

"Look, these guys screamed up and down they were going to cure all the ills of the world, they were going to deliver these huge giant increases, and it didn't happen," said Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), leader of the Senate's GOP minority. 

In response, Mike Murphy, spokesman for the Senate's new majority, said that, by some measures, Democrats appear to have done a better job providing money in 2019-20 than the former GOP majority did in the current year. 

"The simple fact is that the Senate Democratic majority is better for Long Island families, businesses and communities," Murphy said. 

Murphy also credited Democratic lawmakers for backing Cuomo's push this year to make state tax caps permanent.

Under the rigorous cap law, which took effect in 2012-13, school districts generally are limited to raising property-tax revenues by a baseline limit of 2 percent annually or the inflation rate, whichever is lower. School budgets that pierce cap limits require approval of at least 60 percent of those voting.

The law exempts from the cap only a few district expenses, such as costs of voter-approved school construction. A new exemption covering BOCES construction costs had been discussed, but no changes ultimately were made, according to officials in the state's Division of the Budget. 

The tax-cap law was due to expire next year, and some Democrats took credit for blocking any such possibility. 

"This gives Long Islanders the peace of mind that next year, when the cap was supposed to expire, their property taxes won't jump exponentially," said Assemb. Phil Ramos (D-Brentwood). 

Some taxpayer advocates would like lawmakers to go much further in helping to cut school costs, rather than simply limiting growth each year.

"I don't think the tax caps are the final answer," said Andrea Vecchio, a founder of East Islip Tax Pac, a local watchdog group. "The real answer is cutting spending."

Aid for LI schools

Here are amounts of state aid for Long Island public school operations since 2012-13, from school aid runs released by the state. These figures do not include state money allotted to districts for building construction and renovation.

2012-13: $2.15 billion

2013-14: $2.25 billion

2014-15: $2.36 billion

2015-16: $2.51 billion

2016-17: $2.68 billion

2017-18: $2.80 billion

2018-19: $2.91 billion

2019-20: $3.00 billion

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