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State legislature won’t include education policy in budget negotiations

By Tom Momberg

Budget negotiations are cooling down as the state budget deadline approaches and compromise is being made. But several legislators, parents, educational advocacy groups and city leaders are still heated over Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed education reforms.

City Councilman and Education Committee Chairman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) joined other council members, parents and organizations last week to rally against the executive budget proposal on school receivership.

Cuomo’s agenda would authorize the state Education commissioner to designate receivership districts around the lowest performing schools in the state. The commissioner would be authorized to appoint an individual, nonprofit organization, charter school or other school district to assume management of those schools, often to make unilateral changes that may limit local control.

Dromm and his colleagues touted Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Renewal Schools” program, which has only just begun. He said that the governor’s proposed reforms would replace an increasingly effective model with a failing one.

The plan may affect budgets, curriculum, collective bargaining agreements, schedules and staffing in so-called failing schools.

The state Senate presented its recommended changes to the executive budget last week, a $1.9 billion one-house budget — an $800 million increase over the proposed executive budget.

Education Committee Chairman Sen. John Flanagan (R-Suffolk County), said that policy issues like mayoral control and possible school receivership should be addressed outside the budget process. That was reflected in each house’s recommended changes.

“We aren’t really in the business of taking away, but we want to eliminate the (Gap Elimination Adjustment) in its entirety this year,” Flanagan said during a public hearing by the Joint Budget Legislative Conference Committee on Education.

The GEA was created in 2009 to help the state shift expenses to local school districts and balance the budget. The executive budget already plans to reduce GEA by $602 million, but several lawmakers want it gone.

The state Senate also wishes to fully fund Foundation Aid, which is the main source of operation aid for many school districts that were shortchanged in previous years. The Senate proposal would also drop $50 million in competitive grants from the executive budget, make a $5 million investment in public school libraries and enhance the Boards of Cooperative Educational Services.

Flanagan said the Senate does not want to negotiate policy.

“At the same time, I fully well recognize that last year, we had policy proposals as a part of our overall budget, so that does not mean that we should not have them,” he said.

The Assembly’s recommended budget changes were presented in a $1.8 billion package. In education, the plan focuses on an increase in formula-based aid, an increase in Foundation Aid by $1 billion, as well as an additional $460 million for growth in enrollment, English-language learning and students with special needs.

As the chair of the Assembly’s Committee on Education, Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan (D-Ridgewood) said the committee would fully reject any language from the governor on teacher evaluation, receivership or gubernatorial control over city schools.

“You cannot run schools from afar; schools are local,” she said during the hearing in Albany. “We can put more than a down payment, we can move forward on the Campaign for Fiscal Equity commitment to increase Foundation Aide. At the same time we can keep our commitment to school districts to remove the (GEA).”

The conference committee on education noted a precedent set by the 2003 Supreme Court decision in Campaign for Fiscal Equity vs. State of New York, which pushed back on any attempt by an executive to couple policy issues and budget together in a way that deprives New York City public schools of the equal education guaranteed by the state’s constitution.

The New York City Council’s committee on education was scheduled to draft a resolution this week, calling upon the state Legislature to eliminate the governor’s receivership model in the executive budget for the city.

Reach reporter Tom Momberg by e-mail at tmomberg@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4573.

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