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No school districts served by ‘competitive’ state aid policy

— Last week, we told you what we thought were the good points of the executive budget presented by Gov. Andrew Cuomo as presented in Syracuse Feb. 8, including SUNY reform, a focus on infrastructure and Medicaid relief.

But we have one major bone to pick with the governor.

Year after year of cuts in state aid have hurt local school districts, forcing them to cut jobs and programs. Minimal increases this year in building aid aren’t enough to make up for cuts in transportation aid, BOCES aid and other losses in revenue. Liverpool schools are looking at a $10.3 million budget gap for the 2012-13. In North Syracuse, the hole is $5.8 million deep. In other districts, the numbers are similar.

Obviously, school districts will have to get creative to make up their losses. Unions will have to give up raises and benefits and contribute more to their health insurance packages, and superintendents will have to trim the fat as much as possible in order to present responsible budgets to the taxpayers. This is their burden to bear, and they know that.

But when the governor has more than $800 million in the coffers that could easily be divided up among the state’s districts to ease that burden, it’s just plain irresponsible.

As part of his executive budget, Cuomo proposed an additional $250 million for competitive grants to school districts, a program he created last year, bringing the total to $800 million. The program targets low-wealth, high-needs districts.

In a commentary published Feb. 4 in the Albany Times-Union, Fred Brun took the governor to task for what one superintendent called a “Dickensian” policy of forcing the state’s districts into direct competition for state aid.

“‘Competition works,’ [Cuomo] said more than once. Sure, when the playing field is level and the contestants evenly matched. Pitting high-needs districts against the affluent is ridiculous; pitting them against each other is right out of Spartacus… That conjures an image of a two shabby public orphanages brawling out on the street to see which one will be fed dinner.”

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