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School-Finance Alternative Faces Foes' Scrutiny in N.Y.

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Gov. Mario M. Cuomo has revised his controversial proposal to overhaul New York State's school-finance system, but the new proposal has left critics questioning the soundness of his plan.

In the new version unveiled last month, public schools over all would lose less state aid than the Governor had recommended in January. (See Education Week, Feb. 3, 1993.)

The amended version restores $78 million of the $130 million reduction sought earlier Mr. Cuomo. Much of the restored funding would go to middle-income suburban districts, whose legislators had balked at the loss of school support.

To provide the additional funds to the suburban districts, Mr. Cuomo again proposed to revamp the formula. In doing so, some lawmakers and educators contend, he shifted from an attempt to simplify the formula to a move to gain a political edge.

"We are not averse to the idea of simplifying the formula,'' said Sen. Charles D. Cook, the chairman of the Senate education committee.

"However, he has not simplified it,'' Mr. Cook continued. "There is very little rationale other than making the numbers come out right.''

Both the Governor and the board of regents have offered plans to alter the funding formula by combining numerous funding categories.

There are significant differences between the proposals, however. One is that the Governor's revised plan would cap the additional funding a district could receive under the new formula in excess of its current aid level, while the regents' plan sets a ceiling but then takes into account the impact of extraordinary needs.

"It's hard for the Governor to go very far in the direction of reform when the reform he is talking about is remedying loss,'' said Carl Hayden, the chairman of the regents' state-aid committee. "We're trying to move money in the direction of schools that desperately need it.''

Despite the regents' concern with some of the specifics of Mr. Cuomo's proposal, Mr. Hayden said he believes the two plans can achieve harmony.

"The thrust of the Governor's proposal is similar. I think it creates a momentum that did not heretofore exist,'' he said.

'A Colossal Mistake?'

One particular area of concern is the Governor's plan to fold funds for boards of cooperative educational services into districts' operating budgets.

Bïãåó are regional administrative units that provide services to groups of districts. Critics charge that the Governor's proposal to eliminate separate funding for the boards runs counter to his stated desire to consolidate services.

"To eliminate incentives for sharing now, precisely at a time when we are trying to increase the incidence of sharing, would be a colossal mistake,'' Commissioner of Education Thomas Sobol told a joint legislative hearing last month.

"It would almost certainly lead to a fragmentation and reduction of educational programs and services, wasteful duplication, and a widening of the gap between youngsters from wealthy versus poorer districts across the state,'' Mr. Sobol testified.

Observers say Mr. Cuomo wants to circumvent the âïãåó because of outrage at a Suffolk County district superintendent who left his job last fall with a $963,000 retirement package.

A task-force report on school administrators' compensation released late last month found no comparable situations.

Nonetheless, the task force found what Patrick J. Bulgaro, the state budget director, termed "unusual methods of compensation,'' including private loans, annuities, generous leave buy-backs, and fully paid life-insurance policies.

"These are not ordinary benefits for rank-and-file employees,'' Mr. Bulgaro said, "and their provision to certain administrators raises questions worthy of public review.''

Some observers wonder if the specter of wasteful school spending may be at the bottom of the Governor's decision to withhold additional monies at a time when the state's fiscal situation is improving.

"The till isn't as dry as he's saying,'' said William J. Pape, a spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association.

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