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Mayor outlines his plans for state ed money

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Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to spend money from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity fund to reduce class size and expand pre-K programs in the city’s schools, but Queens legislators want to see the coveted dollars in the borough’s pockets first.

Bloomberg is asking for $5.3 billion in added schools funding from the state as part of the CFE decision, which ruled that city students were not getting the same opportunities as their upstate counterparts because of disproportionate funding.

“The court found that long years of state underfunding had systematically denied our city’s students the sound basic education that is theirs by right,” Bloomberg said last week. “We need to give our students their due so that they can share in the American Dream. If we don’t we’ll lose out on their talents and all they have to contribute.”

But the state has yet to decide precisely how much additional education funding the city will get and where it will come from, Queens lawmakers say.

Bloomberg laid out his $5.3 billion plan for education last week at PENCIL’s Principal for a Day town hall meeting in Manhattan. The mayor would like to put $1.9 billion toward early grade support, including reducing class size, expanding prekindergarten programs and providing more support for struggling students.

Secondary schools would also get about $2 billion, which would be earmarked for creating smaller specialized schools, reducing class size and boosting advanced placement, college and career programs, Bloomberg said.

About $514 million would go to help special education students and English language learners, while $830 million would be devoted to training, hiring and retaining better teachers, the mayor said.

But while Bloomberg has already made up his wish list, others would rather see the money in the city’s coffers first.

“We want the mayor to be more aggressive in getting the money,” City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) said. “He’s talked a lot about spending it.”

One of the problems in the state Legislature is a battle between Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), who insists on including the CFE funds in this year’s budget, and Republican Gov. George Pataki and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno (R-Rensselaer), who want to wait and approve a budget for this year, said Assemblywoman Barbara Clark (D-Queens Village).

The court decision mandates that the state have a plan on how to fund the reforms by July, but it does not say which year it must be implemented, she said.

“We need to resolve this issue with this budget,” said Clark, who has been fighting for the CFE since the outset. “If not, it won’t get resolved. What is going to propel us to find that money?”

Others, including Assemblyman Barry Grodenchik (D-Flushing), faulted the Zarb Commission report, which outlined how to distribute the education funding more equitably. The report, which was released late, did not set a specific dollar amount for the city and it did not outline where the money should come from, he said.

Grodenchik also warned that a sudden influx of money might make it difficult to allocate properly around the city.

“I don’t think that if someone handed us a check today that we could spend it properly,” he said. “You can’t ramp up spending by that large a number. The mayor talks about cutting class size to 20 students, but it’s not physically possible. You can’t build new schools overnight.”

To build schools, Bloomberg is pushing a $13.1 billion five-year capital plan, and he is asking Albany to cover $6.5 billion of that. The funds would go toward reconstruction of ailing schools and new construction, City Councilman David Weprin (D-Hollis) said.

“We need a major capital infusion,” he said. “We are optimistic that we will get this money.”

And until the state decides what portion of its budget will go to city schools, the city cannot truly plan its own budget, Councilman Dennis Gallagher (R-Middle Village) said.

“If we know what the state budget includes for the city, then we’ll have a better idea of how to plan,” he said. “When you take a look at the inadequate things in our school system it’s a marvel these kids can achieve at all.”

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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