School & District Management

Paterson Inherits Budget Issues as N.Y. Governor

By Michele McNeil — March 17, 2008 4 min read
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New York Gov. David A. Paterson, who was sworn in today as the governor of New York in the wake of his predecessor’s resignation, takes charge at one of the most pivotal times of the year for public schools: state budget negotiations.

On the same day last week that Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, announced his resignation a little more than a year into his first term, the New York Assembly and Senate released their versions of the one-year state budget amid a projected $4 billion deficit.

Gov. Spitzer’s $81.8 billion budget proposal had included an additional $1.46 billion for education, which would bring total K-12 spending for fiscal 2009 to $21 billion. But advocates had criticized that proposal for falling $350 million short of earlier promises.

The state is supposed to have a budget done by April 1; frequently, the process takes longer. Hammering out the budget details, including how much money to allocate to schools and how to plug the budget hole, now falls to Mr. Paterson, who was Mr. Spitzer’s lieutenant governor.

Those budget decisions will be made in a charged environment that’s been rocked by a sex scandal involving Mr. Spitzer and the sudden political demise of a governor known as the “sheriff of Wall Street” for his pursuit of public-corruption cases when he was state attorney general.

Mr. Paterson, a Democrat and former state legislator who is legally blind, is the country’s second currently serving African-American governor. And Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, a Republican who often had tangled with Gov. Spitzer, assumes the duties of the lieutenant governor in accordance with the state constitution.

“This couldn’t be a more difficult time,” said Richard C. Iannuzzi, the president of the New York State United Teachers, a 590,000-member affiliate of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. “Under Governor Spitzer, we were beginning to make some real progress in addressing educational equity. Now, with a $4 billion deficit and this kind of political uncertainty, we could probably be facing a setback.”

Unfinished Agenda

Gov. Spitzer came into office in 2007 with an ambitious education improvement agenda, although he often butted heads with legislative leaders.

Early on, he tapped Manuel Rivera, the former Rochester, N.Y., superintendent, to be his chief education adviser, and Mr. Rivera backed out of a decision to take the superintendent’s job in Boston to assume that post. Even before Mr. Spitzer’s most recent troubles became public, Mr. Rivera was being courted for a top position with Los Angeles Unified School District, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Mr. Spitzer had been praised for increasing the cap on charter schools in New York to 200 from 100, which advocates had tried to accomplish for years. But by far his most difficult task was school funding.

During his first—and essentially only—year in office, Mr. Spitzer had responsibility for bringing state school funding levels into compliance after years of court rulings that had declared them unconstitutional and inadequate. He was making progress by securing more funding in the 2008 budget year. And he also crafted a “Contracts for Excellence” plan that attached strings, and accountability, to additional money for schools. (“Tighter Link Sought Between Spending, Achievement in N.Y.,” Sept. 5, 2007.)

But more recently, Mr. Spitzer had taken some heat for proposing a budget that education advocates said didn’t provide enough additional money for schools.

“Governor Spitzer gets a lot of credit for increasing school funding, but unfortunately he did not live up to that promise,” said Geri Palast, the executive director of the New York City-based Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which waged a decade-long battle in the state courts to get more funding for schools, particularly in New York City.

‘Fresh Perspective’

A big question mark is how Mr. Paterson, a former Senate minority leader, will fit into budget negotiations in his new role as governor.

“Historically, he has a very positive record on education,” said Ms. Palast. “But no one knows exactly the role he will play.”

She said she’s also encouraged because Mr. Paterson, who represented Harlem in New York City as a state lawmaker, supported the CFE lawsuit and the quest for more money for the state’s public schools.

Teachers union officials also expressed hope that Mr. Spitzer’s departure will mean an end to his plan to cap property taxes for schools, a pledge he unveiled in January as a means to curtail the growth of school spending and property taxes on homeowners. He had just created a seven-member commission, which had subpoena powers, to devise a way to cap school property taxes.

“He drew some battle lines there,” Mr. Iannuzzi said. “I would expect Governor Paterson to bring some fresh perspective.”

Public school advocates don’t expect to hear much from Mr. Paterson on his education agenda while he’s embroiled in budget negotiations. He is known, however, to be a champion for students with disabilities. According to news reports, Mr. Paterson’s family moved out of New York City when he was a child because the city’s schools could not guarantee him an education without putting him in special education classes.

Also, Mr. Paterson has been a supporter of charter schools, and in a 2006 New York Observer story, earned praised from voucher advocate Clint Bolick for being a friend of school choice. However, Mr. Paterson has also said that while he supports the idea of choice, he’s not particularly keen on some tactics of the school choice movement.

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