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Regents weigh $2.4 billion increase in state aid for 2016-17

State Regents are weighing a proposed $2.4 billion hike in school aid for the coming year -- the biggest potential increase since the 2008 economic downturn -- partly as a means of helping districts cope with a looming freeze on property taxes.

The aid plan, which would require approval by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the legislature, would provide $2.1 billion in assistance set by a formula that covers general school operating costs, a rise of about 10 percent. An extra $300 million would be allocated for specific programs such as expanded prekindergarten classes.

The proposal was aired Monday at the Regents' monthly meeting in Albany, which while advisory in nature reflects widespread expectations of a generous boost in state financial help for public schools for the 2016-17 school year. Analysts cite a recovering economy as reason for optimism, along with the fact that state lawmakers face elections next November.

Last week, the New York State Educational Conference Board, an umbrella group representing teacher unions, school boards and other organizations, called for a $2.2 billion hike in financial assistance for the next school year. That figure is up $300 million from the conference's recommendation a year ago.

The Regents are scheduled to give the plan final approval next month. The recommendation then goes to lawmakers, who are scheduled to adopt a budget by April 1.

One particular hope among Long Island school leaders is that any school aid increase for 2016-17 will completely eliminate the so-called "Gap Elimination Adjustment," or GEA. That is Albany's term for hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance money that was cut several years ago when the state was struggling to close a massive budget deficit.

Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who represents the Island on the 17-member Regents panel, reminded members that they tentatively agreed last year that the GEA should be wiped clean.

"Not only we, but also the legislature, sort of made a commitment," Tilles said.

Regents and legislators alike are divided on the question, with the split based largely on geography.

Representatives of suburban areas tend to favor immediate GEA elimination, because it would help middle- and upper-income school districts. Representatives of urban districts tend to support distribution of aid through the state's "foundation" formula, which drives a greater amount of aid toward districts with larger percentages of impoverished students.

Monday, the chairman of the Regents committee on state aid, James Tallon Jr., a former Assembly majority leader, declined to commit to GEA elimination in one year.

"Whether or not we can bring it down to zero, I don't want to predict," said Tallon, who now works as a health-care policy executive and has residences in Binghamton and New York City.

The ultimate size of next year's aid package is taking on increased importance because local districts face the prospect of tighter restrictions on property-tax revenue.

The state tax-cap law, which sets an overall limit of 2 percent on annual tax hikes, is expected to clamp increases of 0 percent on many districts' budgets this year because of a low increase in the inflation rate, which is used in a formula setting the exact cap each year.

As a result, according to the New York State School Boards Association, a substantial number of board members say they would consider attempts to override caps in May, when districts hold budget votes. Cap overrides require a voter majority of at least 60 percent.

Thirty-eight percent of board trustees responding to an association survey said they would consider asking voters to exceed their tax cap if it was essentially zero. More than 600 board members participated in the survey out of about 5,000 statewide.

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