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Group pressures Pataki on school funding reform

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While school children in Queens and throughout the city were wrapping up the 2000-2001 academic year last week, a Manhattan group rallied on the steps of the State Supreme Court building to fight for equal education funding from Albany.

The non-profit Campaign for Fiscal Equity held a news conference and rally Friday to highlight the lack of progress toward reforming the state’s education funding laws over the last several months.

In January 2001, after a seven-month trial in which the CFE and other groups sued the state, State Supreme Court Judge Leland DeGrasse ruled that the state regularly underfunds students in its five largest cities, including New York. DeGrasse ordered the state Legislature to revise its education funding methods by Sept. 15.

As CFE was calling for progress, Gov. George Pataki blamed the state Assembly and its inability to pass the state budget — not his own appeal of the court decision — for delaying education funding reform.

Friday was to have been the day both sides were due in court to provide updates on the progress of reform, but Pataki’s appeal of the CFE decision has left reform in limbo, the group said.

Michael Rebell, executive director of the non-profit Campaign for Fiscal Equity, led Friday’s news conference.

“The failure of our state leaders to address critical budget issues — threatening even to pass no budget at all this year — is hindering reform and threatening a cutback in education funding that will shortchange students,” he said. “This is not just business as usual. It’s business worse than usual.”

DeGrasse’s decision ordered the state to provide enough funding to give New York students a “sound, basic education” that includes acceptable class sizes, an adequate number of teachers and support staff in schools, buildings with enough space and suitable curricula.

But a spokesman for Pataki said the governor’s proposed budget was obstructed by Democratic legislators in the state Assembly and their inability to come to an agreement.

“The governor has proposed a budget that combines the highest level of funding for schools in state history with sweeping reforms to overhaul the school funding formula,” spokesman Joe Conway said. “It’s ironic, amazing and unfortunate that anyone would try to politicize this, especially since it’s the Assembly Democrats that have been the biggest stumbling blocks to these reforms.”

State Assemblyman Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) issued a news release Monday on a recently passed Assembly resolution urging Pataki to drop his appeal.

“It is time for the governor and the Legislature to start negotiations toward a fair and adequate formula that would fulfill our children’s constitutional right to a sound basic education,” Gianaris said in a statement.

State Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing), a member of the Senate Committee on School Aide Equity, also called on Pataki to move forward on education funding reform.

“What’s the sense of dragging our feet?” she asked. “It’s a problem that is not going to go away. Gov. Pataki is anywhere but Albany — this is the time when he belongs in Albany.”

Reach reporter Kathianne Boniello by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.

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