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Local school aid up, but not all pleased

Tuesday, January 22, 2013
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Assemblyman James Tediso listens to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo propose in his Executive Budget on Tuesday, a record $142.6 billion state spending plan that begins post-Hurricane Sandy rebuilding and seeks to streamline government operations while providing new funding for education, health care and economic development.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
Assemblyman James Tediso listens to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo propose in his Executive Budget on Tuesday, a record $142.6 billion state spending plan that begins post-Hurricane Sandy rebuilding and seeks to streamline government operations while providing new funding for education, health care and economic development.

— Education advocates seemed hopeful Tuesday about Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed 4.4 percent increase in state aid, but Schenectady’s school superintendent says it doesn’t go far enough.

Under the governor’s budget, the Schenectady City School District would receive about $98.2 million in total state aid, which is a nearly $4 million increase from this year.

Superintendent Laurence Spring said he is pleased that Cuomo is proposing to give Schenectady a larger increase than many districts — indicating he is receptive to concerns that needier districts such as Schenectady need more funding.

Spring has said that districts with a high minority population are receiving less aid than they should be getting under a court settlement the state reached several years ago. Spring estimated that the district rightfully should be getting an additional $38 million.

“It feels like crumbs,” he said.

Spring plans to share these concerns Monday when he meets with three members of Cuomo’s staff. The governor helped arrange the meeting in response to an email the superintendent sent outlining his concerns.

Phil Steck, D-Colonie, said he strongly supports Spring’s efforts to adjust the education formula. “I know that my colleagues in the Capital District feel the same way about that, and we’re going to try to get that formula fixed,” he said.

Total school aid is pegged at $21.1 billion, a cumulative increase for the 2013-2014 school year of $889 million.

The law links the growth in education spending to the rate of growth in state personal income. That comes out to a 3 percent increase, which results in a total of $611 million, according to Cuomo.

The governor is also proposing an additional 1 percent in what he termed stabilization aid — $203 million — to help school districts with skyrocketing pension costs and to help stabilize their fiscal situation.

The remaining $75 million would fund the initiatives he outlined in his State of the State address, including grants for schools that extend the school day and year and those that offer pre-kindergarten, and to establish community-based schools.

If this budget is adopted, funding for education will have increased by 8.6 percent over two years — double the rate of inflation and four or five times the increase in home values during that same period.

“Ideally, we would always like to fund everything with all the money in the world, but we live in the real world and I think these increases we have made in education are notable and significant,” Cuomo said.

Even with the concerns about equity, school officials around the Capital Region were happy that more aid was on the way.

Greater Amsterdam School District Superintendent Thomas Perillo said he was relieved that Cuomo didn’t mention any aid cuts, as has happened in previous years. “We’re still trying to recuperate from that,” he said.

Perillo doesn’t know where he would find further reductions in his budget. “Class sizes are pretty much at the max and programs are as streamlined as they can be,” he said.

If the district has enough money, Perillo said it would look at reducing class sizes, particularly in kindergarten through second grade, from 27 or 28 currently and bring back some electives at the high school level. He also said the district would consider applying for some of those incentive grants.

Shenendehowa Central School District Superintendent L. Oliver Robinson said he is encouraged by the governor’s proposal to add more aid to address rising pension costs and to stabilize the fiscal condition of school districts.

“It has been a tremendous burden to provide a high-quality education in the face of increased accountability and yet shrinking budgets and resources. The devil is in the details, but so far the proposed budget sounds promising,” he said in an email.

Shenendehowa’s aid would actually drop from $38.1 million to $37.8 million under the governor’s plan.

The New York State School Boards Association said there was a lot to like in the governor’s proposal, including the stabilization fund, potential mandate relief and funding for pre-kindergarten and extended school days, according to spokesman David Albert.

“He’s putting forth some strong proposals for funding and backing up some of his initiatives with dollars,” he said. “The key thing is going to be how are these allocated.”

However, the association cautioned Cuomo not to award too many of the grants on a competitive basis, especially the ones that reward a district’s academic performance, because not all districts can afford to have people filling out grant applications.

“We would prefer to see that go back into general support for public schools,” he said.

Last year, the Legislature reduced $200 million of the $250 million funding that Cuomo had originally allocated for a competitive grant program.

The association is pleased that Cuomo promises to look at special education regulations. The state mandates exceed what the federal government requires.

The New York State Council of School Superintendents also praised the budget for trying to address the pension costs and provide relief from state mandates in special education but wants more details on the how the stabilization fund money will be allocated.

In his speech, Cuomo said that New York has one of the most expensive education systems in the country but not the highest-performing. Every year, the answer to the problem was to give more money, which hasn’t proven effective. He wants to see results.

“The education system is not about funding a bureaucracy or funding groups or funding a trade association. The education system is about getting the best education for the student,” he said.

 
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