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State Assembly, Senate agree to restore school funds

State Assembly, Senate agree to restore school funds

Both state legislative chambers called for fully restoring a series of school funding budget cuts en

Both state legislative chambers called for fully restoring a series of school funding budget cuts enacted during the economic downturn, but differed on how much to increase other funding to schools.

In one-house budgets approved in the last week, both the state Assembly and Senate allocated over $430 million needed to fully restore the Gap Elimination Adjustment [GEA] cuts that have hacked into annual state funding for districts across the state since 2010.

But the Democrat-controlled Assembly goes even further, boosting spending on K-12 education by a total $2.1 billion in its budget proposal — more than double Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal and $445 million more than the Senate budget.

The GEA restoration primarily benefits moderate-income and affluent districts, while poorer districts benefit more from increases to foundation aid — the primary source of state funding for education. Cuomo’s budget called for a two-year phase-out of the remaining GEA cuts.

Niskayuna schools, for example, are owed more than $1.6 million in outstanding Gap Elimination cuts, and the governor’s proposal would reimburse just over $500,000 of that this year. Under the Senate and Assembly budgets, the district would see the extra $1.1 million funded this budget year.

The Schenectady City School District, however, has been less affected by GEA cuts and has around $30,000 in outstanding GEA money at stake. The district would benefit much more from an increase in foundation aid, which aims to focus more spending on the most high-need districts in the state.

“I’m pleased we are looking at total elimination of the [GEA] this year; that has been a Senate priority for a number of years and this is the year we have to get it done,” Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, said Wednesday at a joint conference committee tasked with bridging the education proposals of the two chambers.

Seward later added it was necessary to eliminate GEA debts before lawmakers could fully “turn our attention” to foundation aid. Other Republican senators, including Sen. Hugh Farley, R-Niskayuna, have made similar suggestions that eliminating GEA was a first step toward a broader conversation about making the kinds of investments in funding the foundation aid formula that Democrats and education advocates have called for.

The Senate-passed budget resolution allocated $880 million to foundation aid this year — still an increase over the governor’s proposal.

The Democrat-controlled Assembly, however, is ready to turn its attention to foundation aid in this year’s budget, proposing a $1.1 billion foundation aid increase, and committing to spending another $3.3 billion in foundation aid by the 2019-2020 school year.

If the Assembly is ever able to make good on its promise to “fully fund” foundation aid, Schenectady schools would see over $60 million more a year in state aid — money Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring has said would fund major tax cuts for district homeowners and increase mental health, academic and mentorship supports to students.

Both chambers rejected Cuomo’s plan to create a new pre-kindergarten grant administered through the Office of Children and Family Services, with the Senate encouraging the state Education Department to consolidate existing programs into one.

While the Senate wants to create the Office for Religious and Independent Schools within the Education Department, the Assembly’s budget establishes the Office of Family and Community Engagement.

Other education issues, like charter school funding and extending mayoral control for New York City schools, remain sticking points as lawmakers try to finalize a spending plan in the coming weeks and win Cuomo’s approval.

Reach Gazette reporter Zachary Matson at 395-3120, [email protected] or @zacharydmatson on Twitter.

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