THE new Democratic governor has proposed his first budget, calling for a significant increase in education spending for New York City and similarly needy school districts. Many suburban districts would get less aid. The mayor praises the governor’s vision; suburban state senators are howling.
In this chronology, the new governor is not Eliot Spitzer. It is Mario M. Cuomo, and the year is 1983. Governor Cuomo was trying to redistribute more state education aid to needier districts, but the plan was met with fierce opposition. Suburban superintendents invaded the capitol to protest. And Republican legislators fought the plan and won: school aid around the state remained pretty much at the same level it was the year before. A lawsuit was filed to challenge the state education aid formula, and the court eventually ruled that the state had to address concerns about needier districts. Gov. George E. Pataki vigorously fought the lawsuit for 12 years.
Now, that Governor Spitzer has unveiled his ambitious proposal to increase state aid significantly for schools in New York City and other needy districts, school officials on Long Island are poring over the plan to find out what it will mean for their districts.
Across Long Island, 72 of 117 districts would get increases of 3 percent or more in the governor’s proposed budget. Nine districts, including Farmingdale, Cold Spring Harbor and Elwood, would get less than last year. Hempstead and Brentwood would see significant increases.
Mr. Spitzer’s proposal to shift dollars to poorer districts differs from Mr. Cuomo’s in crucial details: Mr. Cuomo tried to cut aid to more affluent districts, which meant that just about every suburban district would lose money. Mr. Spitzer has proposed a spending increase so huge — $7 billion in added spending over four years — that there are few losers: Some rich suburban districts will get slightly more, while poor districts get a bonanza.
Also, Governor Spitzer, intent on winning support from most Republican suburban lawmakers, promises that his proposal will be coupled with property tax relief. He has also proposed changing the aid formula so that all districts get an increase in their lump-sum state aid, known as “foundation” aid. Additional state dollars would be provided for specific categories, based on need.
“The time you really hear from the districts is when you actually cut their state aid,” said E. J. McMahon, executive director of the Empire Center for Public Policy, a conservative fiscal policy group. “Unless the superintendents are saying, ‘This is going to have a severe impact and lead to cutting back extracurricular activities,’ the opposition might not be that strong.”
Matthew T. Crosson, president of the Long Island Association, said his group might look to limit the impact of school taxes on businesses, which could increase if costs rise but state aid doesn’t.
But beyond that, he said, “The concept of this — which is if you’re going to have additional aid it should go to the areas that need it the most, and if you’re going to have property tax relief it should go to those with the biggest burdens — it’s hard to argue with that.”
Under the governor’s plan, there would be a $1.4 billion increase in state aid, to $19.2 billion this year. An additional $1.5 billion would go to expanding the STAR tax rebate program next year, with the projection that it would grow to $6 billion in three years. The State Court of Appeals, ruling in a 13-year-old education financing case last year, said more had to be spent in New York City and other needier districts.
Every district would get at least a 3 percent increase in the basic aid program this year, and some would get much larger jumps. Depending on some smaller, targeted aid programs, a handful of districts would lose money compared with 2006-7. Over all, Long Island’s state aid would increase by 5.2 percent. In comparison, aid for New York City would increase by 9.5 percent, for Brentwood by 12.3 percent and for Hempstead by 9.6 percent.
Some school officials worry that districts that are neither rich nor poor will suffer. “I believe he gave an honest effort to get money to poor districts, but he did it at the expense of the average-need districts,” said Jim Kaden, vice president of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association.
In Westchester, Lisa P. Davis, president of the Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association, said she would urge parent-teacher associations to lobby against the proposal, even though her school district, in Chappaqua, would get a 5.4 percent increase. “We want to make sure we get what we should based on all our districts’ needs,” she said.
Homeowners in every district in the suburbs would also get a substantial increase in tax rebates: an average of 23 percent on Long Island.
The Republican state senators say it ought to be more.
“Long Island traditionally gets about 13 percent of state aid,” said Tom Dunham, a spokesman for Senator Dean G. Skelos, a Republican from Rockville Centre and the deputy majority leader. “The governor’s budget cuts our share of new aid to 8 percent. By doing that, Long Island schools are losing $68 million in money they would be entitled to under their 13 percent share.”
But the governor’s allies think there aren’t enough losers to foment a revolution this time.
“With this plan, we believe we are covering all the bases,” said Geri D. Palast, executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, the educational advocacy group that sued the state for more state aid to city schools and now supports the governor. “Nobody’s losing. Over all, the number of winners necessary to make a majority are there.”
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