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LI superintendent predicts schools can win extra state financial aid

But Rockville Centre schools Superintendent William Johnson and other educators said Friday that local districts will have to push back against some proposals in the state education budget.

William Johnson, superintendent of Rockville Centre schools, breaks

William Johnson, superintendent of Rockville Centre schools, breaks down the governor's 2019-20 aid proposal during a financial forum at Leon Campo Center in Westbury on Friday. Photo Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

Long Island schools, if they lobby forcefully, should succeed in winning extra state financial aid next year, despite a troubling decline in state revenues, a regional education leader said Friday.

William Johnson, superintendent of Rockville Centre schools, told a conference of Nassau County education administrators that local districts, working with new leaders in the state Senate, would hold their own in the annual contest between the Island, New York City and other regions to obtain state education funding.

Johnson spoke at an annual financial forum in Westbury sponsored by the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents.

A longtime speaker on finance issues, Johnson praised new state Senate majority leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers). Cousins this year replaced state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), prompting local political activists to question whether the Island had lost its clout.

Stewart-Cousins, rather, should be regarded as a powerful ally, Johnson said.

"Andrea Stewart-Cousins is no shrinking violet," the Rockville Centre schools chief said. "She understands suburban education."

Stewart-Cousins, whose senatorial district includes suburban communities in Westchester County as well as more urbanized neighborhoods, has described herself in similar terms. 

The forum unfolded Friday against a backdrop of growing anxiety over public-school funding. 

On Monday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, joined by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, announced at a news conference that state income-tax revenues were down $2.8 billion, forcing him to reconsider proposed spending on schools, health care and repairs to roads and bridges.

Cuomo, a Democrat, blamed the shortfall largely on recent Republican-driven changes in federal tax policy.

State lawmakers said afterward that they were still reviewing the numbers, but hoped the governor would spare aid to schools from any budget reductions required down the line. Some potential cuts could be announced as soon as next week.

"We cannot ask taxpayers to do more with property taxes," said state Sen. Shelley Mayer (D-Yonkers), chairman of the Senate Education Committee. Mayer, like Stewart-Cousins, represents suburban parts of Westchester, as well as a slice of Yonkers. 

"I'm a suburban legislator from Westchester, and we as a legislative conference are committed to seeing that Long Island gets as much money as possible, keeping in mind the newly announced shortfall," Mayer added. 

At the forum, a succession of speakers took shots at some of the governor's specific school-funding policies.

One proposed change for the 2019-20 school year would combine 11 different types of aid used to reimburse districts for expenses, including bus transportation, textbooks and computer purchases. Growth in such expenses would be capped at 2 percent annually. 

Cuomo's administration contends that such growth in the past has far outpaced inflation, and that imposing new limits would encourage districts to control spending. Johnson said, on the other hand, that such restrictions would represent a disproportionate hit on the Nassau-Suffolk region that is particularly dependent on expense-driven types of aid. 

"What we need to do is tell our story," said Johnson, who urged his audience to reach out to state lawmakers.  

The annual question of how much state financial assistance will go to schools on Long Island and elsewhere has taken on increased importance since 2012, when Albany first imposed annual cap restrictions on revenues raised through local property taxes. The effect, essentially, has been to make school districts more dependent on the state. 

Cuomo's initial offer to schools, announced in his January budget message, was relatively modest.  

In terms of school operating aid, the governor proposed a 2.03 percent increase for the Island — the lowest hike in seven years. Such assistance, often used as a measure of growth from one year to the next, includes money used to fund general operations and to reimburse past years' expenses. 

Such aid does not include additional dollars contained in Cuomo's proposed budget for school construction and renovation, as well as for special programs such as preschool and after-school instruction.

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