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Lawmakers, education commissioner eye dollars ‘owed’ to districts

Lawmakers, education commissioner eye dollars ‘owed’ to districts

Board of Regents proposed a $1.66 billion boost in education funding; Cuomo presented a $338 million plan during last month's budget address
Lawmakers, education commissioner eye dollars ‘owed’ to districts
New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia toured P-Tech in Johnstown in 2015
Photographer: Marc Schultz/Gazette Photographer

ALBANY -- State lawmakers and Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia on Wednesday pressed their case that school districts are owed billions of dollars in additional funding under a formula Gov. Andrew Cuomo has sought to downplay.

Citing the Board of Regents’ proposed $1.66 billion boost in foundation aid – the funding formula designed to determine how much money districts need to provide students with the “foundation” of a basic education – Elia said Cuomo’s budget proposal was “substantially lower” than the amount education officials think districts need.

“This number for foundation aid of $1.6 billion reflects the foundation aid that is currently owed to districts that has not been paid to them,” Elia said during testimony before a panel of state lawmakers. Some Democratic lawmakers pressed Elia to take her criticism of the governor’s proposal even further.

“It’s OK to say you’re not happy with the executive budget when it comes to foundation aid,” Sen. John Liu, D-Queens, told her.

So Elia reiterated her view.

“Let me state it clearly: We are not happy this is substantially lower than our number,” she said.

Assembly Democrats in recent years have called for a plan to phase in billions in additional foundation aid funding, but those ambitions were tamed by Republicans leading the Senate – even as education spending grew to record levels and New York consistently registered as spending the most per student of any state in the country.

Now, with Democrats in charge of the state Senate, momentum toward more funding is building in that chamber, as well. But it is not clear how far state lawmakers will be able to go in boosting school spending.

Cuomo last month proposed $338 million in new foundation aid, about a quarter of the increase Elia and the Board of Regents called for. On Tuesday, the governor said a revenue shortfall will further complicate the state budget -- there is no longer enough revenue to support his own budget proposal, which the state’s education establishment had largely panned as inadequate, Cuomo told reporters Tuesday.

Elia and lawmakers also denounced the governor’s plan to require districts to submit plans for targeting funds to their neediest schools, while granting the education commissioner authority to force districts to allocate dollars to specific schools.

Cuomo said the plan builds on a new requirement that districts report per-student spending levels in each school.

“We assumed if we funded the poorer school districts, they would turn around and fund the poorer schools in their districts,” Cuomo said during his budget address last month. “That was our assumption. It was a bad assumption.”

But Cuomo’s proposal was widely criticized as an infringement on local control over schools.

Elia said she supports new reporting requirements that will make districts disclose detailed financial information, arguing it will foster local discussions about how dollars are being spent.

“If there are issues, it’s appropriate for individuals within that district -- the school board, the superintendent -- to explain how that money is being used," she said.

But Elia said she thinks the governor’s proposal goes too far in giving the education commissioner the right to dictate how districts spend their money.

“I don’t see that as my role,” she said.

During more than four hours of testimony, Elia also called for increased funding for the state Education Department, arguing it does not have the staff to keep up with its programs.

She also highlighted a $20 million budget request to support creating 2,000 new pre-kindergarten spots, which she said would bring to 70 percent the share of the state’s 4-year-olds served by the state’s so-called “universal” pre-kindergarten program.

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