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Officials endorse $4.3B, three-year state-aid proposal for schools

Freeport school Superintendent Kishore Kuncham works with Dayana

Freeport school Superintendent Kishore Kuncham works with Dayana Salguero, 5, in Bonnie Murphy's kindergarten class at New Visions Elementary School on Monday, Dec. 12, 2016. Kuncham says a greater emphasis on "foundation" aid from the state would help the district. Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

ALBANY — State education officials on Monday endorsed a $4.3 billion, three-year phase-in of school “foundation” aid focused on the needs of poorer districts statewide, including on Long Island and in New York City.

The funding proposal would allot a total of $2.1 billion for the 2017-18 school year alone. That would include $1.8 billion in foundation aid, together with increased money for English language instruction, prekindergarten classes and teacher training.

The package, approved unanimously by a state Board of Regents subcommittee, is expected to win approval Tuesday from the full board and then be submitted to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state legislators, who have the final say over state budgets. The Cuomo administration so far has committed itself only to a $1.1 billion aid hike for schools next year.

The plan also includes:

  • Consolidation of seven public prekindergarten programs into one unified system, with a $100 million hike in funding statewide.
  • Another $100 million for instruction of students with limited English skills, including those enrolled in dual English/Spanish language classes.
  • Changes in definitions of “economic disadvantage” that state analysts said would provide a more accurate picture of students’ needs. This would include a shift away from use of poverty data in the 2000 Census to more up-to-date figures contained in annual federal “Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates.”
  • Restoration of Regents exams in foreign languages, which were eliminated five years ago in an economy move, as well as restoration of exams in academic subjects translated from English into eight other languages including Spanish, Chinese, Arabic and Russian.

The funding proposal would be in addition to a total of about $24 billion annually that New York state devotes to school aid, which makes up roughly one-quarter of the entire state budget. The call for greater distribution of money to districts with concentrations of students who are poor or who have limited English language skills drew a mixed reaction in Nassau and Suffolk counties, where some middle-class districts fear loss of dollars.

Supporters of the package plan acknowledged that lawmakers could balk at approving the entire dollar increase, especially in a non-election year. Supporters added, however, that the state needs to start thinking about how to deal with growing poverty among students, particularly recent immigrants who speak limited English.

“All we’re saying is we’re all facing these numbers,” said Regent James Tallon of Binghamton and Manhattan, a former Democratic majority leader of the state Assembly. “Let’s have a discussion.”

Lawmakers first approved the concept of foundation aid in 2007, partly in response to a state Court of Appeals decision in favor of greater school funding for New York City. Distribution of the extra money — which would have amounted to more than $5 billion for the city and about $4 billion elsewhere across the state — was halted because of the 2008 financial crash.

“The funding is needed to keep the promise that has been deferred,” said Kishore Kuncham, superintendent of Freeport schools. Kuncham also is president of an organization known as REFIT, which represents 35 districts on the Island with limited funding.

State authorities face mounting pressure to comply with the 2007 legal decision. The Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a Manhattan-based group that filed the original lawsuit, has gone back to court in an effort to collect the money it says is due.

The New York State Association of School Business Officials, an advocacy and research group headquartered in Albany, recently released estimates of how different regions of the state might fare under accelerated increases in foundation-aid money.

The estimates, based on 2015-16 school-spending figures, showed New York City gaining about $1.6 billion, or the equivalent of 6.4 percent of the system’s total spending, and Long Island gaining $795 million, or 6.8 percent of spending among the Island’s 124 districts.

Distribution of foundation-aid money in Nassau and Suffolk counties would vary widely from district to district, depending upon their relative wealth or poverty, the analysis found. For example, 18 districts could receive aid infusions equivalent to 10 percent or more of their spending, while 36 districts could lose money.

Walter Schartner, superintendent of Sayville schools, said his district could stand to lose as much as $4.2 million in aid unless state lawmakers agree to extend “save harmless” provisions to ensure that school systems receive at least as much state money as they got in the past. Otherwise, he said, the impact would be seen in local tax bills.

“That’s an 8.25 percent increase for our taxpayers,” Schartner said.

Allocating state aid to public schools

State Education Department officials say changes in the formula for state-aid allocation to public schools would be beneficial to districts with poorer students, those with disabilities and those who are English-language learners.

Here are percentages of those students for the 2015-16 school year on Long Island and statewide, according to the state agency’s data.

Economically disadvantaged students

Nassau: 30%

Suffolk: 38%

Statewide: 54%

Students with disabilities

Nassau: 13%

Suffolk: 15%

Statewide: 17%

Students who are English-language learners

Nassau: 7%

Suffolk: 8%

Statewide: 8%

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