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Politics and Government

Schools say state surplus should be used for additional aid

James F Clay

The New York State Educational Conference Board says now that the economy is improving and the state has a multi-billion dollar surplus, it’s time to end years of what they say is underspending on New York’s schools.

The board is made up of the state’s teachers, school boards, superintendents and the PTA, among others. They agree school spending must increase significantly in the new year. Chairman John Yagielski says the groups want an additional $1.9 billion for the 2015-16 school year.

They say even though the recession has eased and the state has a substantial surplus, schools are still getting less money than what they got before the 2008 stock market crash.

The basic aid to schools, known as foundation aid, has been frozen for years. Under a measure implemented in the depths of the recession, known as the Gap Elimination Adjustment, the state withheld more money from schools to help plug New York’s then large budget gap. Districts are also getting squeezed by a property tax cap and coping with implementation of the new Common Core learning standards.

Bob Lowry, with the New York State Council of School Superintendents, says schools are falling behind.

“So many educators say they fear their schools will never again be able to offer the opportunities students in the past had,” Lowry said.

New York State Association of School Business Officials Michael Borges says many schools are still owed around $250 million in unpaid claims for computers, bus transportation and other items from as far back as 2010. He says a portion of the multi-billion dollar surplus from recent bank settlements could pay for that one-time expense.

In the past, the legislature has been willing to increase school funding, but the groups face a bigger obstacle in Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has said repeatedly that spending more money will not necessarily improve schools and student performance.

The groups say they are dismayed over the governor’s comments just before elections, when he said he would break what he called the last public monopoly. Cuomo spoke at an event on Long Island in late October.

“It’s probably the single largest public monopoly in the United States of America,” said Cuomo.

Yagielski says the governor’s claim is, for starters, inaccurate. He says there are 700 independently elected school boards, and private school options, as well.

“Is that a monopoly?” he asked.

Lowry, with the school superintendents, says if anything the state’s schools are more receptive and transparent to the public than other forms of government. He says there are annual report cards, test results, and even school violence incident reports.

“Who else produces more performance data?” Lowry asked. “Cities, counties, towns villages, the state do not put their budgets up for a vote every year as all the districts, outside the big five schools, do.”

A spokeswoman for the governor labeled the school groups special interests, and ruled out using any part of the surplus windfall from the bank settlements to pay for ongoing expenses for schools. She did not say whether any new funding could come from the rest of the state’s $140 billion budget.

“The governor is committed to utilizing the settlement money in a fiscally responsible way, including one-time allocations to replace aging infrastructure, rebuild upstate cities and help local governments cut costs and lower property taxes,” said Cuomo Communications Director Melissa Derosa, in a statement. “What we won’t do is use this one-shot funding to satisfy unsustainable and short-sighted special interest demands now with no plan to pay for it in future years."

The $1.9 billion the education groups are seeking does not include money to fulfill a 2005 court order that said children were being denied their constitutional rights to a sound basic education because of inadequate funding. In order to comply with the court order in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case, schools would need another $5 billion.