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N.Y. Lawmakers Tap Surplus in Approving 5% Boost in School Aid

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New York State lawmakers last week sealed an agreement that will provide a $550 million boost in aid to schools. But the good news may have come too late to stop tax-weary voters from vetoing a record number of school district budgets.

Wrapping up work on the fiscal 1995 budget, the legislature agreed to increase state school aid to a total of $9.6 billion.

Election-year politics and a $1.5 billion revenue surplus led to the 5 percent increase, observers said.

The budget includes two programs proposed by Gov. Mario M. Cuomo--tuition-free schools for gifted students and college scholarships for needy students. But the funding levels were well below those sought by the Governor, and the schools for the gifted will serve commuter students, rather than boarders as Mr. Cuomo had urged.

"We're pretty happy around here,'' said William J. Pape, a spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association.

The legislature largely preserved the formula for distributing aid that was adopted last year. Officials from districts that received close to the maximum increase of 6.85 percent hailed the result, while those that saw little or no gain saluted lawmakers with the proverbial Bronx cheer.

Early reports indicated, for example, that schools in the Albany-area community of Wynantskill will get only a 0.99 percent increase--roughly a $12,000 boost to the district's $4 million budget.

"That's beer money around here--without the pretzels,'' said J. Scott Lavonas, an assistant superintendent.

A number of provisions were included to help New York City schools. The district will receive nearly half of a $41.6 million increase for magnet-school programs, as well as $42 million of a $62 million school-construction fund.

New York City school officials also were pleased about a provision that severely limits Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's plans to make extensive cuts from schools to help cover the city's budget deficit.

School Budgets Rejected

This is the 10th year in a row that lawmakers have missed the April 1 deadline established by law for passing the budget.

The delay stretched more than a month into the period in May and June when 634 districts vote on their school budgets.

Voters have rejected 33 percent of the 501 district budgets put forward since May 1, according to Mr. Pape. Since 1978, no more than 30 percent of the budgets in any one year have been rejected.

School officials attributed the losses largely to New Yorkers' anti-tax mood. James J. O'Connell, the executive director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, noted that the state share of education spending has dropped each of the last five years, frequently forcing local taxpayers to make up the difference.

Still, some said the protracted negotiations in Albany indirectly contributed to the defeats.

Schools expected a big package of aid from the legislature, said Mr. O'Connell, but "no one could really gamble on that.''

Figuring their aid conservatively, some districts may have asked for more from taxpayers than they probably now need, he explained.

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