Eighth-grade students prepare to take a Regents exam. (June 18,...

Eighth-grade students prepare to take a Regents exam. (June 18, 2010) Credit: Newsday/Karen Wiles Stabile

The state of New York has paid the cost of Regents exams for students since 1865, through wars and depressions. But Albany's education chiefs say times are now so tough they are mulling the idea of charging school districts $5.93 per student to fund the exams.

Members of the state Board of Regents, who set educational policy, say they're distressed by the prospect of imposing fees for exams in the 2011-12 school year. But they add that they will run out of money to prepare and administer most of next year's hundreds of thousands of exams unless state lawmakers provide an extra $15 million.

"If the money does not come through, there's probably no other option than self-funding," said Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who is Long Island's representative on the board.

Tilles and Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch of Manhattan spoke Wednesday at a Melville luncheon attended by about 100 social studies teachers and supervisors. Many expressed outrage over the proposed new fees and other, related cost-cutting moves.

A tough sell

"That's more money out of school districts' pockets," said Frank Juzwiak, a social studies teacher at Patchogue-Medford High School.

The $5.93-per-student fee was calculated, officials said, by dividing the total number of students in all grades and in all districts by total costs of exams. For example, estimated fees would total $94,732 in Brentwood, the largest district on the Island.

That raises strong objections in Brentwood, which recently laid off more than 100 teachers and other workers.

"They're making it sound like it's saving taxpayers money, when in fact, taxpayers still wind up with the bill," said Rick Belyea, a district spokesman.

Currently, the state offers 13 Regents exams in English, science, math, social studies and foreign languages. Students must pass at least five exams to earn Regents diplomas.

In March, state Education Department officials who report to the Regents faced a firestorm of criticism when they first raised the possibility of canceling most Regents exams. Eventually officials backed off that idea in favor of more modest cutbacks, including elimination of exams in German, Hebrew and Latin.

Agency officials say they're now considering a wide variety of options, but that the preferred approach would be to charge fees for exams unless state lawmakers provide the needed $15 million amid a continuing budget crunch. A decision will have to be reached in the spring, officials add.

Not happy about it

"Do you think any of us are enjoying this?" said Tisch. "You know, the thought of charging school districts for this is not something we would do lightly. But everything needs to be on the table."

Brian Dowd, social studies administrator in the Massapequa school district, criticized the idea. "What about the districts that can't afford that?" he asked. "Will they not give the test? Some of these districts are just hanging on by a thread."

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers say education officials may have jumped the gun on the issue, since the legislature will not even begin considering next year's budget until after Jan. 1.

"The timing of this is certainly off, in that it's too early," said state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), the ranking Republican on the Senate Education Committee. Flanagan noted that legislators would also want to see the initial budget proposal from Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo. A Cuomo spokesman, Josh Vlasto, had no immediate comment late Wednesday.

One open question is whether private schools that use Regents exams, but unlike public schools are not required to do so, would continue using them if fees were charged. One administrator, Sari Bacon, associate principal of Hebrew Academy of Nassau County in Uniondale, answered affirmatively Wednesday.

"As long as we feel the Regents exams are a worthwhile checkpoint for our curriculum and instruction, we would continue to use them," Bacon said.

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