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Democrats divided over push to restore NYC schools funding

Democrats in the Senate are split along new political fault lines over a push to restore state schools funds to New York City.

Three city senators from a breakaway group of Democrats, formed as part of a power-sharing deal with Republicans, said this week that they would not join with party colleagues during upcoming budget negotiations in calling for increased aid for the city’s schools.

The state is planning to take back $260 million from the city after the city and its teachers union failed to reach a deal on evaluations before Jan. 17, a deadline mandated by law. The loss of funds would result in cuts to the school system’s central offices, extracurricular programs, and school staff.

The legislature passed the law last year, at Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s urging, to incentivize local school districts to come to agreements over contentious teacher evaluation plans.

Many of the same lawmakers who supported Cuomo’s carrot-and-stick approach say they now made a mistake and want to reverse course. The law was meant to be more of a threat, some said Wednesday, and they never expected it to go this far.

“I never say I have all the answers,” said Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, who chairs the education committee. “I voted for that because I accepted what the other people all said, but I think now it was a mistake.”

Nolan and her Democratic colleagues in the Assembly, most of whom come from New York City, said they are prepared to dig in their heels as budget negotiations get underway. Speaker Sheldon Silver told teachers and parents, in Albany for the United Federation of Teachers Lobby Day on Wednesday, that he would restore the $260 million in the Assembly’s budget proposal, which will be introduced today.

But Senate Democrats, who are less concentrated in New York City, are more divided, and it’s unlikely they’ll take up the fight as vigorously as the Assembly plans to.

Westchester’s Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who heads the Senate Democratic Conference, said Wednesday she still hopes to see the funds restored.

“The children shouldn’t have to suffer because the adults couldn’t agree,” Stewart-Cousins said.

But senators from the five-member Independent Democratic Conference, which joined forces with Republicans to run the Senate last year, said they do not.

“Unfortunately, the law is the law,” said Jeff Klein, a Bronx senator who heads the Independent Democratic Conference. Klein said he instead supported Cuomo’s legislation to allow state Education Commissioner John King to decide the evaluation system if New York City can’t come to an agreement for next year. “I think restoration of the money is going to be very, very difficult, because it was mandated in law. It was very clear.”

Two other members of Klein’s group, Diane Savino, who represents Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn, and Malcolm Smith, of Queens, said the loss in funding was a consequence of the both sides’ inability to negotiate a deal.

The lack of support from the Independent Democratic Conference is significant. Of 63 senators, 31 are caucusing with Republicans and 27 are with the Democrats. The five independents are a perpetual swing vote, but they have so far sided with Democrats.

Savino said she was less eager to support the funding because the central players were not lobbying heavily for it.

“Neither the city or the UFT are asking for it,” Savino said. “The UFT was up here today and they weren’t asking for it.”

Others have been more aggressive. It’s a top legislative priority for the advocacy organization Alliance for Quality Education, and three of the four Democratic candidates for mayor said they supported AQE’s campaign.

“There is no good excuse for the state to make these cuts,” said Billy Easton, AQE’s executive director. “The Independent Democrats would appear to have leverage on this issue. I would hope they would use it.”

Without the support of the Independent Democratic Conference, the likelihood that legislative action could restore funding grows dimmer. The cuts could still be averted in court: Right now, they are on hold while a judge rules if they’re legal.

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