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Regents recommend $2B increase in state school aid

New York State Education Commissioner John King, background

New York State Education Commissioner John King, background right, takes part in a Board of Regents meeting at the State Education building on Monday, Dec. 15, 2014, in Albany. Photo Credit: Albany Times Union / Paul Buckowski

ALBANY -- The state Board of Regents Monday recommended a record $2 billion hike in next year's statewide school-aid package, including major funding increases for full-day preschool classes outside New York City, for non-English speaking immigrant students, and for poorer school districts throughout the state.

The Regents' plan, which is strictly advisory, represents a dramatic jump from the $1.3 billion increase recommended last year. Advocates contend, however, that the extra financial assistance is justified because school districts themselves are restricted by state tax caps on the revenue they can raise.

"I know that $2 billion is a big number," said Regent James R. Tallon Jr., chairman of the Regents committee that cobbled together the aid proposal for the 2015-16 school year. He described the increase as the largest in the 13 years he has served on the educational policy board.

Tallon added that Albany's imposition of a 2 percent cap on annual increases in local property taxes, while beneficial for homeowners, "carries the implication that the state has to step up."

The ultimate decision on aid allocations is up to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who will issue his annual budget proposal next month, and to state lawmakers, who are required to adopt a final budget by April 1.

One provision in the Regents plan of particular interest to Long Island schools would restore $597 million in aid that was cut in 2009 and 2010 as a result of nationwide economic decline. Those aid reductions, officially labeled the "Gap Elimination Adjustment," hit schools in Nassau and Suffolk counties especially hard, because of their slightly greater-than-average wealth.

Regents said Monday that they envision complete restoration of all aid reductions by the 2016-17 school year. To restore aid any quicker would leave less money available for poorer school districts, they contend.

However, many of the Island's school leaders and legislators, including State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), have called for complete restoration within the next year.

David Weiss, superintendent of Long Beach schools, said the state should move quickly to give back the money because it is experiencing a financial upswing. He added that the Gap Elimination reductions make up about $3 million a year in lost revenue for his district alone.

"As soon as they don't have a shortfall, that money should be returned fully," Weiss said. "We are currently using reserves to close the gap created here."

Another sore point with many of the Island's school officials was the state's decision last spring to allocate $300 million in funding for full-day preschool classes in New York City, and only $40 million for such programs in the rest of the state. The Regents' latest plan would seek to make such programs more universal, by allotting more than $180 million in additional assistance for full-day pre-K classes in districts outside New York City, as well as nearly $70 million in new funds for the city's preschools.

Roberta Gerold, superintendent of the Middle Country school district, said she welcomes the added pre-kindergarten money, but not if it takes away from other priorities, such as restoring financial assistance cut in 2009 and 2010. Gerold, who heads the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, said restoration of millions in lost revenues is her organization's top priority.

"I want our kids to have the best program public funds can provide," Gerold said. She added, referring to classes in kindergarten through 12th grade, "They are not adequately funded now."

As in past years, the Regents' plan would drive a large share of funding to the neediest school districts statewide. Another $526 million would be distributed according to the state's "foundation aid" formula, based largely on students living below the poverty line.

That would be balanced, to a degree, by preserving $223 million in "high tax aid," which benefits mostly middle-class districts on the Island where tax rates are particularly high.The Regents' package takes note of a recent surge of immigrant students into districts such as Hempstead and Roosevelt. It recommends $30 million in extra state assistance to cover general enrollment growth, as well as $10 million specifically to address the recent surge of immigrant students unaccompanied by adults.

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