Many of Long Island’s education and political leaders concluded Tuesday that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposed package of $2.97 billion in school operating aid for the two-county region — a 2.03 percent increase — represents a decent opening bid for 2019-20 funding.
Other officials at the local and state levels, however, contended that New York State could do far better in helping maintain student services in an era of property tax-cap restrictions while also narrowing disparities between school districts rich and poor.
“Very simply, it’s a good starting point,” said William Johnson, superintendent of Rockville Centre schools and a regional expert on state-aid issues. “In this uncertain economic environment, the governor’s made education a priority."
Johnson added that regional school officials in coming weeks will be combing through the fine print of Cuomo’s proposal — that is, district-by-district aid figures that were not released until late afternoon Tuesday.
The point, Johnson said, would be to press state lawmakers from Nassau and Suffolk counties to make sure the region is treated fairly in the annual tug-of-war for cash between the Island, New York City and other regions.
Legislators already are keeping that point in mind.
“Look, I think there’s good reason to be optimistic about these preliminary numbers,” said Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach). “But our legislative delegation is going to be scouring the budget and checking on our respective districts to make sure Long Island schools get the aid increases we’re accustomed to.”
Figures laid out by the governor before a capacity crowd in Albany — a 3.6 percent increase to $27.7 billion — represented total proposed education expenditures statewide. That includes special programs such as preschool services that not all districts offer.
A more granular examination of dollars earmarked specifically to support local districts’ operating expenses showed less growth than the overall statewide numbers.
Newsday’s calculations found that, under Cuomo’s plan, operating aid to 124 districts in Nassau and Suffolk would rise by $59.17 million, or 2.03 percent, to a total $2.97 billion.
Operating aid to New York City would increase $184 million, or 1.91 percent, to a total $9.79 billion, Newsday found. Assistance statewide would grow $475.3 million, or 2.04 percent, to $23.78 billion.
Newsday's calculations did not include figures for building aid, which varies by district, or money allocated to districts for schools that are required to provide certain community services.
“I think we’re going to try to do better,” said Assemb. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket), who is the senior member from Long Island on the Assembly Education Committee. “School aid is important because it holds down property taxes while investing in our future and our children.”
At the state level, two top education officials said the governor’s budget fell far short of what was needed to provide equitable school services to students living in the most impoverished communities.
Betty Rosa, chancellor of the Board of Regents, and Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia issued a joint statement criticizing as inadequate the $338 million that Cuomo wants to add to the state’s Foundation Aid program next year.
Foundation funding is the state’s primary source of school assistance, and it especially helps districts with large numbers of students living below the poverty line.
Rosa and Elia said that the governor’s proposal, while well intended, “falls far short of what schools need to achieve equity, or even keep pace with inflation and demographic changes.”
Cuomo, in Tuesday's budget message, took a different view. He contended that some of the state’s larger urban systems were shortchanging schools in poor neighborhoods while funneling more money per-student to schools in affluent neighborhoods.
The solution, according to the governor and some education advocates, is to concentrate more on how funds are distributed between schools, rather than simply between districts.
Two weeks ago, the governor also weighed in on the question of whether there will be regional shifts in the state’s distribution of school cash, now that Democrats have taken control of the state Senate formerly dominated by Republicans.
Republicans recently have lost eight Senate seats to Democrats, four of them on the Island alone.
A shift toward greater state assistance for New York City would not “sit well with a lot of the senators who just got elected on Long Island,” Cuomo told an interviewer at WCNY, an upstate public radio station.
Another issue facing schools is the state’s tax cap, which sets baseline restrictions on how much districts can increase property-tax revenues in any given year.
On Friday, the state comptroller’s office announced that the 2019-20 baseline would be 2 percent — the maximum allowed under state law.
Inflation, however, is running slightly higher than 2 percent, prompting school representatives to argue that their systems are increasingly dependent on the state’s generosity.
April 1 is the state's deadline for the governor and lawmakers to agree on a final budget.
State aid to schools
Here's how funds for operating assistance to Long Island's 124 school districts stack up in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's proposed budget for 2019-20. Funds for building aid and money allocated to districts required to perform certain community services were not included.
$1,080,471,098 — increase of 2.60 percent
$1,892,473,294 — increase of 1.71 percent
$2,972,944,392 — increase of 2.03 percent
$23,784,842,329 — increase of 2.04 percent