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Breaking With Tradition, N.Y. Budget Arrives on Deadline

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The New York legislature completed deliberations on a budget last week only one day into the state's new financial year--close enough for lawmakers to claim an on-time finish and ample enough to earn cheers from education advocates pleased with the prospect of a year without state-aid cuts.

Completion of the budget was a welcome departure from the lengthy deadlocks that in recent years have increasingly lingered past the statutory April 1 deadline and in recent months have meant sizable funding cuts as well.

Lawmakers last week approved a $56.5-billion state budget that will provide $8.55 billion for elementary and secondary schools--a $79-million increase from last year's level and a far cry from the $704 million in cuts ordered since December 1990.

"Given the fiscal realities of this year, we have to say we're pleased,'' noted Bill J. Pape, communications director for the New York State School Boards Association. "For school districts, no one is getting any extra money, but at least we'll be no worse off than last year.''

After lengthy debate, the budget plan managed to avoid $240 million in education cuts that had been recommended by Gov. Mario M. Cuomo. The small rise in education funding was made possible in part by a last-minute decision to "sell'' the parking lot of a Queens racetrack from one quasi-public board to another, thus generating about $50 million.

In the budget battle, public K-12 education proved more resilient than most other state programs, including higher education, which are slated for further cuts.

The budget plan guarantees that no school district will lose more than 2 percent of last year's state-aid level.

As the result of 11th-hour wrangling over the bill, most of the new education funding will be funneled to upstate school districts. New York City and its suburban neighbors, on the other hand, appear the most likely to see reductions.

Continuing Pressures Seen

While accepting the overall budget, some education lobbyists held out hope that subsequent changes might yet hold all districts harmless.

"We're still fighting to assure that no district in the state gets less than it did last year,'' said Linda Rosenblatt, a spokesman for the New York State United Teachers union.

For many who were examining the plan last week, the bill was more noteworthy for what was salvaged from cuts rather than what was won in new funding.

Programs that managed to escape the chopping block ranged from school-health demonstrations to higher-education aid. The bill also would provide continued appropriations of $5 million for teacher-resource and computer-training centers and nearly $7 million for a teacher-opportunity corps.

Further, the bill estimates a $50-million savings to districts by reaching an agreement that would allow them to seek Medicaid reimbursements for some supplemental services provided to handicapped students.

Not all funding requests, however, made the legislature's list. A $30 million request by the state education department to speed implementation of revamped assessments, new academic standards, and an incentive program for improved school achievement was left unfunded. Officials last week were also working to determine how budget cuts might affect the department's staffing and operation.

One key benefit of the almost-on-time budget is that it will provide local school administrators more time to prepare budgets and mount campaigns for local voter approval of tax levies later this spring.

Observers predicted, however, that districts will continue to face heavy pressures despite the slight increases for many in state aid.

More than half of the teachers affiliated with the N.Y.S.U.T., the state's largest teachers' union, are currently working without a contract, for example. Mr. Pape of the school-boards association said that rising expenses and anticipated salary hikes will create strains in a number of districts.

"They are still behind the eight ball,'' he said.

"It won't be as dire as it could have been,'' added Ms. Rosenblatt of the teachers' union. "But the pressure will continue.''

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