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De Blasio pushes edu-tax plan at pre-K program in Sunnyside

By Rich Bockmann

With the clock ticking in Albany where his push for an education-funding tax hike received mixed support, Mayor Bill de Blasio stopped in Sunnyside last week to tour one of the many half-day pre-K sites he hopes to expand next school year.

De Blasio visited the Sunnyside Community Services center on 39th Street last Friday with state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria), state Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan (D-Ridgewood) and City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), all supporters of the mayor’s plan to levy a small tax on city residents earning more than $500,000 a year to fund universal pre-K and after-school programs for middle schoolers.

“This is how it’s supposed to be,” de Blasio told seniors at the center as he praised Sunnyside Community Services, which in addition to job-training and adult-day programs, also hosts a half-day pre-K program with 36 seats.

More than half of the pre-K seats in the city are housed not in public schools but in community-based organizations like Sunnyside Community Services, which said it has applied to expand its half-day seats to full-day seats next year.

Funding a pre-kindergarten expansion of approximately 20,000 seats in each of the next two years with a tax increase on the city’s wealthiest earners was the centerpiece of de Blasio’s campaign last year, though the force of the newly minted mayor’s mandate appears to have met an immovable object in Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has stood firm in his opposition to a tax hike, instead preferring a statewide expansion paid for by Albany.

And with time running out, the window for de Blasio to persuade the governor to change course is growing ever smaller.

Both houses of the state Legislature passed their budget resolutions last week — the starting point in their negotiations with Cuomo — and lawmakers in Albany are eager to pass an on-time budget by April 1, which would make it the first time the state has gotten the deal done on time four years in a row since Republican Nelson Rockefeller was governor. He served from 1959 to 1973.

The Assembly, controlled by Democrats, approved a 0.534 percent income tax increase in New York City to fund pre-K and after-school programs.

The Senate, run by a coalition of Republicans and the Independent Democratic Conference, did not approve the increase but earmarked $540 million in pre-K funds for the city, far and above the $100 million Cuomo has proposed for the statewide rollout.

It was not clear, however, where the Senate planned to come up with the money, and Cuomo spoke out against predetermined funding for school districts. He said he prefers the competition a first-come, first-serve system will create among districts, compelling them to bring new seats online as quickly as possible.

Nolan, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, pointed out that the state’s pre-K program has been underfunded since it was enacted in the 1990s and said she was cautiously optimistic that Albany will come through with a deal that adequately funds enough seats.

“One thing I’ve learned about many years in Albany is that nothing is done until it’s done,” she said. “You know a lot of things in Albany come back again and again until there’s finally some resolution.”

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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