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Guv's plan could cost LI schools record $172M in aid

One of the entrances to Roosevelt Junior-Senior high

One of the entrances to Roosevelt Junior-Senior high school. Long Island's poorest school districts, like Roosevelt, would get hit next year with steep tax hikes, teacher layoffs or both, if Gov. Paterson pushes his proposed aid cuts. (January 19, 2010) Credit: Newsday/Karen Wiles Stabile

ALBANY - Long Island schools would lose a record $172.6 million in state aid next year under Gov. David A. Paterson's proposed budget - a plan widely denounced by local educators Tuesday as unfair to their region.

Under that plan - which requires approval by state lawmakers - the Island would lose 7.2 percent of its school operating aid, compared to 6.7 percent for the state as a whole and 6.2 percent for New York City. Those figures do not include state financial assistance for school construction and renovation.

Tuesday, Paterson defended his plan as necessary to help close a projected $7.4-billion deficit. The governor also contended that aid cuts were fair, in that poor districts would receive smaller-percentage reductions than rich ones.

But the Island's school officials say this creates a false impression that their region is wealthy, rather than mostly middle class and struggling with high property taxes.

"We're not what we're perceived to be - the rich kid on the block who comes up with the money for everybody else in the state," said Bill Johnson, superintendent of Rockville Centre schools and a former president of the State Council of School Superintendents. "The pain has to be more evenly distributed."

Rockville Centre would lose a little more than $1 million under Paterson's proposal. Levittown would lose $3.2 million; Brentwood, $8 million; Sachem, $9.5 million.

Many doubt the governor will entirely get his way, especially with state elections in November. Last winter, Paterson initially proposed a $157-million reduction in the Island's school aid - also a record in dollar terms. But by spring, the governor had withdrawn his planned cuts and state lawmakers actually managed to boost financial assistance a bit - thanks to an infusion of federal stimulus money.

"I think we're all worried," said Roberta Gerold, superintendent of Middle Country schools, which would take a $5.5-million hit under the Paterson plan. "But we also know the governor doesn't have much support. He says one thing, and then he reverses himself."

For next year, the outlook for continued help from Washington is cloudier. Stimulus money is dwindling. New York State hopes to compensate for a large portion of school aid cuts by winning a share of federal "Race to the Top" money aimed at academic improvement. Potentially, that share could range from $300 million to $700 million.

But hopes appeared to dim Tuesday when state lawmakers failed to reach agreement on a measure that would have allowed the number of charter schools operating statewide to increase from 200 to at least 400. Aides to President Barack Obama have suggested that New York's current cap on charter schools could hurt its chances in the national competition.

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