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Long IslandEducation

Some school districts fare poorly amid overall state aid increase

An empty classroom at the start of a

An empty classroom at the start of a three day weekend at William Floyd High School in Mastic Beach. (Nov. 10, 2011) Credit: Daniel Brennan

Some financially strapped Long Island school districts fare poorly under the state's new aid package, even as the Nassau-Suffolk region overall gets a major cash infusion.

The Baldwin district on Nassau's South Shore, where residents recently voted to cut student busing to save money, would receive an aid increase of less than 2 percent, for example. The money is included in a state budget due for final passage by Albany lawmakers either Thursday or Friday.

Meanwhile, a half-dozen large districts with modest taxable wealth in central Suffolk would receive aid increases of less than 3 percent. The list includes Longwood with a 2.37 percent hike, Sachem with 2.66 percent and William Floyd with 2.03 percent.

"It's going to help us in a very small way, but we are still facing huge financial strains," said Kim Taylor, president of Baldwin's school board. She referred to the district's pending increase in operating aid of $381,715, or 1.72 percent.

Baldwin authorities have warned residents that they may seek a property-tax raise above a state-imposed 3.14 percent cap because of the rising costs of pensions and other state-required expenses, coupled with a shortage of cash reserves. Under state law, piercing the cap would require a majority vote of at least 60 percent of the district's voters on May 21, when school elections are held statewide.

Islandwide, the picture is brighter. The 124 public school districts overall would gain $112.7 million more in operating aid -- or an average of 5.28 percent -- for the 2013-14 academic year, according to district-by-district figures released by lawmakers late Tuesday. That's nearly double the $59.1 million increase proposed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in January. Figures exclude aid for school construction and renovation.

Assistance statewide would go up $871.3 million, or 5.07 percent. Included in that total is aid to New York City schools, which would rise $319.5 million, or 4.6 percent.

"We're certainly thankful to the legislators for the job they did on our behalf," said Bruce Singer, associate superintendent for business in Sachem. His district is to get a $2.3 million aid increase in the legislature's package, as opposed to a $9,900 hike proposed by the governor.

Some regional analysts said that recurring disparities in aid to local districts underscore the need for overhauling state formulas used in distributing money.

As an example of unfairness, Gary Bixhorn, chief operating officer of Eastern Suffolk BOCES, pointed to the latest aid increases slated for 28 Island districts that all rank below the state average in taxable wealth. Seventeen of those districts would get increases below the Islandwide midpoint of 5.28 percent.

"What we need is a formula that works for all regions of the state," Bixhorn said.

On the Island, a favorite target is the state's "foundation aid" formula, which drives money to New York City because it is based largely on percentages of students who are poor. Defenders of that formula, including Cuomo, contend that it is economically progressive. They also note that foundation aid is meant to help comply with a 2006 state Court of Appeals decision requiring more assistance for city schools.

On the other hand, many Island schools benefit from a formula allocating "high tax aid," which is based largely on local property-tax burdens. Legislative leaders have restored $37 million in such assistance that Cuomo sought to eliminate, and added more besides, bringing the regional total of high-tax aid to nearly $147 million.

State lawmakers from the Island pointed out that school-aid allotments generally do well in the latest budget, which is rising less than 2 percent overall.

"The largest increase in any area of the budget is elementary and secondary education -- the largest," said Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson). He added that he wished more money had been available for other services, including those provided for the developmentally disabled.

"We have to remember that we're a family, and this portion of the family did very well," LaValle said.

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