East End Schools Shortchanged In Governor’s Budget

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Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s annual State of the State address on January 8 mirrored his executive budget. Speech time equals money, which was bad news locally, as Long Island had only minutes.

East End stakeholders are panning the education budget in particular, saying they are fed up with being a piggy bank for the state.

Gov. Cuomo’s office touted his budget as strong on education statewide: It includes an $807 million increase in education funding and an additional $323 million toward eliminating the Gap Elimination Adjustment, which has decreased state school aid to plug holes in the general state budget. But only $40 million is being distributed by the state, based on financial need, to districts in Suffolk County.

There’s a similar pattern with the state GEA givebacks, which are based on property wealth and tax base income, according to Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. He said schools countywide would still be hit with a $159 million GEA bill this year.

While Gov. Cuomo says he is increasing the school aid budget by 3.9 percent, Mr. Thiele points out that East End schools are getting an average increase of just 3 percent, with East Hampton, Westhampton Beach, Sag Harbor, East Quogue, Tuckahoe and Bridgehampton getting less. Amagansett will actually see its school aid decrease by about $3,000.

The inequity is by design, according to Gov. Cuomo, with 70 percent of this year’s school aid package going to high-need districts.

At the same time, school districts’ belts will be tightening for other reasons. The state’s tax levy cap, generally stated as 2 percent, actually will be 1.4648 percent this year to match the 2013 consumer price index. The cap is either 2 percent or equal to the CPI, whichever is lower.

The Sag Harbor School Board held a budget workshop recently to examine the effects the governor’s budget would have.

According to district business administrator John O’Keefe, a 1.16-percent increase in state aid will amount to $17,921 more than last year—barely enough to cover the $15,076 expected increase in the athletic department budget.

“Even if the legislature goes to bat for us and ‘does good by us,’ it won’t be that large an increase, because we don’t get too much support to begin with,” Mr. O’Keefe said.

The district will have little flexibility in spending, as $20 million of the $35 million budget is in fixed salaries, board member Chris Tice said. “We’ll have to make some tough decisions and trade-offs going forward, because every year they do it to us.”

“We fight this fight every year,” Mr. Thiele said by phone last week. “We get the short end of the stick every year, and then we have to fight for our fair share. More and more aid goes to low-wealth school districts, and we’re not that.”

The assemblyman said the distribution formula is based on factors other than just an area’s property wealth, such as the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced lunches.

“Unfortunately, the South Fork won’t do well with any of these factors,” he said. “Even small districts that need help—size doesn’t matter at all. A school like Wainscott, it is not worth doing the paperwork to try to get state aid.”

One of the few local districts that got an above-average aid increase was Hampton Bays. District Superintendent Lars Clemenson believes it was the number of students qualifying for reduced lunches that was the overriding factor in a 6-percent increase.

“I will not look a gift horse in the mouth,” he deadpanned, before describing how his district, like every other district, is actually losing state aid while being told otherwise.

According to Mr. Clemenson, Hampton Bays had 1,845 students in 2008, and the state gave the district $5 million. This year, his district has 2,114 students, with the governor proposing $4.4 million—14 percent more students, and 6 percent less in state aid.

Mr. Clemenson said that is directly due to the GEA’s effect on the area. “The deficit was closed on the backs of Long Island school districts,” he said, noting that the GEA, which was implemented in 2009 to close a $10 billion budget deficit, took more money from Long Island than any other region of the state.

Since implementing the GEA, New York has turned its deficit into a $2 billion surplus, according to Gov. Cuomo, and all three major rating agencies have upgraded the state’s financial outlook from “stable” to “positive.”

“Now that they are restoring the GEA money, they want to return it to the East End schools at a lower rate than any other area,” Mr. Clemenson said. “There is this great misperception that all of Long Island is rich, and we should support the rest of the state. This needs to be corrected.”

Mr. Clemenson warned that his district also would have to cut programs, even while most likely levying the maximum allowable increase in the tax rate. “For every dollar we need that doesn’t come from Albany, it comes from you and me that live in Hampton Bays and have to pay taxes,” he said. “New York’s economy is doing well now. We are just asking for what we are owed for stepping up when the state needed.”

Mr. Clemenson added that Hampton Bays will send letters to Albany in favor of a bill proposed last week by Mr. Thiele and Senator Kenneth P. LaValle to, over the next two years, dissolve the GEA. Mr. O’Keefe, while not familiar with the bill itself, also said his district would support a repeal of the GEA.

“The GEA works against Long Island, and it works against wealthy areas, regardless of if the population itself is wealthy, or if they are land rich,” Mr. Thiele said. “I expect the legislature will increase Long Island school aid funding over what the governor proposes, as happens every year. But the needs of Long Island should not be forgotten in the budget process.”

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