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Cuomo's school aid boost circumvents state funding formulas

In some ways, Gov. Andrew Cuomo fulfilled state education officials’ wishes this week when he allocated even more money to cash-strapped school districts than they asked him to.

But Cuomo’s state aid proposal was, in another way, the worst-case scenario that the Board of Regents sketched out last week at their monthly meeting. The Regents wanted new funds to be distributed according to the state’s regular school aid formula, but Cuomo said he would dole out the increased funding according to his own rules.

Knowing that Cuomo already had allocated $75 million in grant funding for this year’s schools budget, state education officials asked him to use the entire amount to help districts expand pre-kindergarten offerings and to distribute the funds mostly to low-income districts. They asked that he put the rest of his education dollars into the foundation aid formula, which doesn’t require districts to apply and compete for funding.

Cuomo’s budget proposal did not fulfill those requests. While he dedicated the largest pot of grant funding to pre-kindergarten, he also allocated $20 million to support extended learning time and $15 million to districts that open community schools. And he proposed another round of $50 million in competitive grants from the pot of $500 million that he first announced in his first State of the State address two years ago. Districts would have to compete and show that they meet certain requirements to win the funds.

Plus, Cuomo’s proposal calls for $203 million in one-time funding for struggling districts — a move that has the education aid package looking better than last year’s on paper, but with an uncertain future.

The one-time funding, coupled with the grants, brought the increased education aid package to $889 million, or an increase of $300 per student.

“This is a significant breakthrough and I’m very pleased about it,” said Michael Rebell, a professor at Columbia University who has long pushed the state to spend more on schools, currently as executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity.

But Rebell said Cuomo’s increase in foundation aid disbursement, which at $611 million is well below last year’s $807 million sum, remained “patently unconstitutional” since it does not come close to the amount of money that a court ordered the state to spend on low-income districts six years ago.

To control spending, Cuomo has capped education spending for the last two years and tied it to the annual growth rate of personal income, which was 3 percent last year.

Rebell also serves on Cuomo’s education reform commission and he said he’s hoping to convince other members to recommend changes to state aid funding when they release their next report later this year. “Frankly, if they don’t remove the cap somebody’s going to bring a lawsuit,” said Rebell. “It might be me.”

State Education Commissioner John King and Regent Jim Tallon, who helped create SED’s state aid proposal, did not comment on Cuomo’s proposal. Tallon said he would withhold comments until February’s Board of Regents meeting.

King will be working with a mixed bag when he testifies before the legislature on Cuomo’s budget proposal. Last year, King called for less competitive grant funding and more general aid funding, and he’ll likely make the same comments this year.

King is also likely to weigh in on the $203 million that Cuomo wants to offer to school districts dealing with crippling teacher pension payments. The one-time funding, which Cuomo is calling “Fiscal Stabilization Funding,” is an unusual budget line that has left some seasoned education insiders unsure of what to think.

On the one hand, Alliance for Quality Education Executive Director Billy Easton said, the funding “is a testament to the burning needs that exist in the schools.” He said the aid still did not go far enough.

On the other, there remain many question marks about how the money will be spent. “We need more details on how the $203 million Fiscal Stabilization Fund will be allocated,” New York State School Superintendents Deputy Director Bob Lowry said.

State Budget Director Robert Megna said no decisions have been made about which districts will receive the funds, or how it will be distributed. He said the $203 million would be targeted to districts that are faced with the toughest budget outlooks.

A specific distribution proposal will be developed in the coming weeks as Cuomo begins his budget negotiations with the legislature. The enticement of $203 million could make for significant bargaining leverage as he strives to submit an on-time budget deal for a third consecutive year.

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