Superintendents and other New York education officials say they fear that the $1.2 billion cut to education aid that Gov. George E. Pataki proposed last week would deliver a devastating blow to school districts around the state.
New York Gov. George E. Pataki, flanked by state budget director Carole Stone, discusses his proposed budget for fiscal 2004 during a media briefing last week in the state Capitol in Albany.
The governor, whose state is facing a projected $11.5 billion revenue shortfall over the next two years, proposed an overall state budget of $90 billion that would cut aid to elementary and secondary schools by 8.5 percent, to $13.4 billion, in the next fiscal year.
Critics quickly condemned the plan after the third-term governor unveiled it on Jan. 29.
“These would be devastating cuts that would take school districts a generation to recover from,” said Assemblyman Steven Sanders, a Democrat who chairs the education committee in the legislature’s lower house. “It will cause an alarm to go out to the education community the likes of which we have not seen in a long time. These cuts are simply unacceptable.”
But Gov. Pataki, a Republican who has prided himself on keeping a lid on taxes, said the cutbacks were needed to avoid increasing the state’s taxes on personal or corporate incomes to address the budget crisis.
“Let’s take the option of raising job-killing taxes off the table on Day One,” the governor said during his annual budget address to the legislature. While members of Mr. Pataki’s party control the Senate, they are outnumbered by Democrats in the Assembly.
State lawmakers will begin meeting this week to start coming up with their own budget plan to submit by March 31. The governor’s budget proposal addresses the state fiscal year that begins April 1. But lawmakers have missed that deadline every year since 1984.
Alan B. Lubin, the executive vice president of New York State United Teachers, the state’s largest teachers’ union with 480,000 members, said in a statement that the proposed cuts would bring severe consequences for schools.
“This is one giant step backwards for New York students,” Mr. Lubin said. “New York’s future is in its classrooms, but that future is being mortgaged off.”
State Hit Hard
The Pataki administration said the financial fallout of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the nation’s economic woes have made it impossible for the state to sustain its current level of spending on education.
The governor’s proposed budget would reduce operating aid to New York’s more than 700 school districts by $407 million. Combined with reductions in discretionary grants, expense-based programs, and other targeted changes, the budget would amount to an overall reduction of $1.2 billion in state school aid.
Yet even with those reductions, the Pataki administration says, state support for public schools since 1994 has increased by $3.6 billion, or 36 percent, and has outpaced inflation.
That doesn’t make Lonnie E. Palmer, the superintendent of the 10,000-student Albany school district, feel any better.
The state now covers 85 percent of the tuition for students to attend specialized schools for the blind and deaf, for example, but the reimbursement rate would fall to 49 percent under the governor’s proposed budget, he said. A $1.2 million cut in funding for prekindergarten programs that the state has financed would completely wipe out those programs in his district, Mr. Palmer said. And the district’s basic operating aid from the state, now at $11 million, would be pared by $300,000.
“We have a voted school budget, so we will have to go to the public with a proposal either to cut programs or raise taxes,” Mr. Palmer said. “Neither one is a very attractive alternative.”
Tom Rogers, the executive director of the New York Council of School Superintendents, said the combination of school districts’ rising costs and the prospect of deep cuts has made for anxious times.
“We knew a cut was coming, but the depth of the cut came as a shock,” Mr. Rogers said.
Many districts are seeing health-insurance premium increases of 15 percent to 20 percent and have to shoulder more of the costs of employees’ retirement benefits because of the sagging stock market, he noted. At the same time, many districts are bound by contracts with their teachers’ unions that were settled during sunnier economic times.
Making the problem worse, Mr. Rogers said, is the state legislature’s historic tardiness in completing a state budget. The start of New York’s fiscal year, April 1, is one of the earliest deadlines in the nation. Because local voters cast ballots on school spending plans in May, they typically vote for budgets without knowing how much state aid is in store.
Although such uncertainly has never made for an ideal situation, he said, in the flush economy of recent years, districts could count on increases from the state.
“All of a sudden,” Mr. Rogers said, “the math is very different.”