Suffolk school officials to lawmakers: You gotta help us!

SAMANTHA BRIX PHOTO | Congressman Tim Bishop was one of 11 Suffolk County elected officials in attendance at Saturday's Legislative Breakfast at Longwood High School.

Suffolk school officials got their first shot this weekend at publicly lobbying local lawmakers to fight Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed state aid cuts.

Education advocates, including superintendents from 25 school districts, attended Saturday’s annual Longwood Legislative Breakfast at Longwood Middle School, where they urged 11 elected officials to help ensure Long Island doesn’t bear the brunt of the governor’s proposed cuts.

Gary Bixhorn, chief operating officer of Eastern Suffolk BOCES, said Nassau and Suffolk counties’ schools are hit with disproportionate cuts under Mr. Cuomo’s proposed state budget. Mr. Cuomo has pitched cutting aid to Long Island schools by an average of 9 percent, compared to the 7.3 percent cut to the rest of the state, Mr. Bixhorn noted. Those cuts would come on top of a system that has seen local schools shortchanged for years, he said, noting Long Island schools enroll about 17 percent of all students in the state, but receive just 12 percent of school aid from Albany.

Under current formulas, Foundation Aid — which accounts for the vast majority of state aid to public school districts — every Long Island student gets about $3,300, versus $4,800 for students in the rest of the state – a 31 percent difference.

“This impact will be real and at least must be made fair across the state,” said Jim Kaden, president of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association.

Newly elected state Senator Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) called on elected and school officials to join forces in demanding equitable aid share for Long Island’s students. “I don’t understand why Long Island is paying a share that’s so significantly higher,” Mr. Zeldin said. “What the governor’s done is not fair to Long Island. That’s why we really need to stand and fight.”

Riverhead School District Superintendent Nancy Carney said she’s confident the legislators will work to secure a fair share of state aid for Suffolk schools.

“I do think there’s going to be some compromise and I’m hopeful that we will get some of our state aid restored,” she said.

She said the proposed $2.9 million cut in state aid for her district is a tough blow, as the district is also facing increases in the Teacher Retirement System and Employee Retirement System, while no longer receiving stimulus funds given in previous years.

“What’s really challenging for us is that everything is coming at one time,” she said. The expenditure increases and state aid cuts “make for an enormously challenging budget year.”

Superintendent Harriet Copel of the Shoreham-Wading River School District told a reporter after the breakfast that proposed aid cuts perpetuate the inequitable school aid formula. And that’s leaving administrators with tough choices.

“We have very, very hard decisions to make about programs that are near and dear to our hearts,” Dr. Copel said.

Elected officials also said relief from unfunded state mandates is a necessary component to freeing up cash and providing programs and services for students. Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) said those sentiments are on the radar of elected leaders in the federal government.

“All of us believe mandate relief is absolutely critical,” he said.

State Assemblyman Dan Losquadro (R-Shoreham) said reform is also needed for the pension system, as teacher pension contributions are eroding school budgets. “We’ve created a monster that’s fed upon our pension system,” he said of the system that’s evolved to fund and disperse pensions to retired education officials.

Despite the promises and strong words, Mr. Zeldin did not sugar-coat that there will be financial hardships coming school districts’ way.

“It’s another year that you have to tighten your belts,” Mr. Zelden told the school officials and the rest of the crowd of about 250. “We’re going to do our best to improve the governor’s budget proposal, but you have to be prepared for the worst.”

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