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Cuomo pitting pre-K against K-12 programs, some say

Pre-K students at Columbus Avenue Early Childhood Center.

Pre-K students at Columbus Avenue Early Childhood Center. (Sept. 13, 2013) Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

ALBANY -- A campaign by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and others to earmark money for prekindergarten now pits pre-K against elementary and secondary programs for discretionary funds, adding another twist to the traditional school-aid fight in the State Legislature, state lawmakers say.

Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio are at odds about how to fund prekindergarten expansion, with the governor offering state funds and the mayor demanding a tax on high-earning city residents. Cuomo, who is up for re-election this year, is touting tax cuts as a cornerstone of his 2014 agenda and making clear his opposition to de Blasio's tax hike.

That high-profile battle of wills is generating another conflict. Some legislators say Cuomo's drive to channel school-aid funds to prekindergarten could mean less money for K-12 programs -- especially for Long Island and upstate school districts.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua) called it prekindergarten versus unrestricted aid. "That's where the negotiation will be," Kolb said. "How do you balance those two needs?"

It's a sentiment that's picked up steam since Cuomo rolled out his fiscal 2014-15 budget plan Tuesday.

"The last thing we want to do is pit pre-K advocates against K-12 advocates," Assemb. Patricia Fahy (D-Albany) said Wednesday, calling it a "terrible dynamic."

"I believe there's going to be a real push on this," state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) said Thursday. "School districts are saying: 'We're worried about maintaining kindergarten, now you're pushing us on pre-K?' Nobody is against pre-K, but the timing is a big problem."

Cuomo recommended a 3.1 percent ($627 million) hike for general school aid. Separately, he offered $100 million to expand full-day prekindergarten programs and proposed a $2 billion borrowing referendum, with the money going to computers in classrooms and prekindergarten building projects if approved by voters.

Cuomo's initiative came after de Blasio made expanding pre-K -- and taxing the wealthy to pay for it -- a successful campaign issue.

Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said K-12 programs weren't being shortchanged by the prekindergarten initiative.

"Education is the governor's top priority, which is why his proposed budget includes an overall $807 million increase in education funding, bringing it to its highest levels in New York's history, while initiating state-funded statewide pre-K and facilitating reforms that inject accountability and rigor into the system," he said.In contrast, suburban legislators said their top priority is an earmark known as "gap elimination adjustment." It refers to school-aid reductions the state imposed in 2009 after the stock market meltdown.

The state's largest teachers' union said Thursday that statewide school aid still hasn't caught up to pre-meltdown levels.

"The big factor in my school districts is the gap elimination adjustment," Assemb. Michelle Schimel (D-Great Neck). She said, jokingly, she "can't go home" at the end of the legislative session in June till "gap is settled."

Azzopardi said Cuomo has approved $918 million toward Gap Elimination Adjustment and his 2014-15 budget proposes an additional $323 million.

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