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Budget News in the News

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January 23, 2014

Daily Gazette, by Haley Viccaro

School officials: Cuomo aid plan not enough

CAPITAL REGION--School superintendents in the region are calling for more state funding to avoid cuts, but support Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s push for full-day prekindergarten.

In his budget address Tuesday, Cuomo proposed an $807 million increase (3.8 percent) in total education aid for the 2014-15 school year, with $608 million for high needs districts.

In 1993, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a nonprofit advocacy organization, filed a lawsuit against the state, arguing that the state’s school aid system was underfunded and distributed unfairly. CFE won the 13-year-long challenge, but education advocates today argue that the state continues to provide insufficient funds for high-needs districts.

About 70 percent of the state’s school districts are receiving less aid compared to the 2008-09 school year, according to New York State United Teachers. The union, which has more than 600,000 members, called for a $1.9 billion increase.

NYSUT is also pushing for more aid in high-needs districts. Laurence Spring, superintendent of Schenectady schools, said his district only gets 54 percent of the total aid it should receive as a district with high needs.

“When I look at Cuomo’s aid run, it does not appear to me that he is concentrating that funding for high needs districts,” Spring said. “Clearly, Cuomo is not paying attention to what districts are in need.”

Cuomo’s budget gives the Schenectady City School District a total of $98.7 million in aid, $2.3 million more than last year. But Spring said the increase is relatively small. The district has a budget deficit of $10 million.

“Schenectady is one of the highest-needs districts in the state and has significant fiscal stress,” Spring said. “It boggles my mind in terms of how they are thinking about district needs.”

Michele Weaver, superintendent of Middleburgh schools in rural Schoharie County, like Spring, says her district requires more aid than it receives from the state.

The budget will provide Middleburgh with $10.2 million in funding, about $400,000 more than the previous year. Weaver said she was looking to receive double that amount.

“Compared to last year, the numbers are better, but they still are not where they need to be,” she said. “Hopefully these will not be the final numbers that will be approved.”

The Alliance for Quality Education held a news conference Wednesday in Albany, during which the region’s legislators and school officials pushed for additional aid to avoid program cuts.

“[Cuomo’s] proposal for state aid to education is $500 million less than the amount requested by the Board of Regents and will not bridge the funding gap between wealthy school districts and those in rural areas … that have been shortchanged for years,” said Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk, D-Duanesburg.

More than 80 legislators, including Sens. Tkaczyk and Neil Breslin, D-Delmar, as well as Assembly members Patricia Fahy, John McDonald and Phil Steck, all Democrats, are pushing for a boost in education aid in the final budget.

Cuomo is also calling for a $2 billion bond act to bring more technology, including computers, tablets and high-speed broadband, into classrooms statewide.

Weaver said she is excited about Cuomo’s push for more technology, but she is concerned about how the district would support it and how expensive it would be on a local level.

The smart schools bond act requires approval from the state Legislature and would be on the ballot for voters in November.

“The more we do with technology only benefits our students,” said Gloversville schools Superintendent Michael Vanyo. “But if it is going to be used for short-term gain, the payback value on that money could raise some concerns. Right now the foundation aid and operating aid is what’s important.”

Another highlight of Cuomo’s address was a plan to fund statewide universal prekindergarten. He is pledging a $1.5 billion state investment over the next five years. It is unclear where that funding would come from in the budget.

Middleburgh currently has two half-day pre-K programs. Weaver said she would jump at the opportunity to expand those programs and provide full-day pre-K.

Gloversville Central School District in Fulton County also has half-day pre-K, with 90 students currently enrolled. Vanyo said those children benefit greatly from the programs.

“Our kids already come in behind, but the ones who are part of our half-day pre-K benefit from that opportunity,” Vanyo said. “I think full-day pre-K is a great idea, and we have the space to expand our programs. I wouldn’t expand, though, if I have to cut other programs.”