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Assembly eyes $3.9B plan for city education funding

The Assembly plan, announced June 2, would increase overall state education spending by $6.1 billion over the next five years, sending about 64 percent of that to New York City schools, according to a release from the Assembly's Democratic leadership.

The state Legislature has been deadlocked over how the state should comply with a court-ordered mandate to reform its school funding formulas. An appellate judge reviewing a lawsuit brought by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity ruled that city students were not getting the same opportunities as their upstate counterparts because of disproportionate funding.

The court decision said the state must have a plan on how to fund the reforms by July. If the state does not have a proposal in place by July 1, a special master will be appointed by the court to take control of the issue.

The Assembly plan would raise the state education budget by $6.1 billion, with about $3.9 billion of that earmarked for the city, more than proposals released by Pataki and the Senate leadership.

"This is clearly the only plan that complies with the court mandate that we fund the New York City schools to a sound level of funding," said Assemblyman Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria). "Of the three plans, it provides more funding to city schools."

Pataki's plan, released May 26, would bring $2.2 billion in new spending for city schools, while the Senate Republican plan, announced May 25, would bring a total of $2.83 billion in additional school aid to the city. Both plans have also been criticized for relying heavily on revenues from gambling, particularly video lottery terminals, ATM-like machines that let people wager on card and other games.

"That has to get off the ground," said state Sen. Serphin Maltese (R-Glendale), defending the gambling plan. "I think we're going to raise a hell of a lot of money with those."

The Assembly would require the city to chip in $1.2 billion in additional spending and maintain that level, meaning as the state aid increases the city cannot decrease its contribution, said state Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Whitestone).

"Once the state provides funding, the city has to put in its share," she said. "That's very important."

The state Legislature has been caught in a deadlock over the issue as it discusses the state budget, which still has not been set despite an April 1 deadline.

One of the problems is a battle between Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), who insists on including the CFE funds in this year's budget, and Republicans Pataki and Senate Leader Joe Bruno (R-Rensselaer), who want to wait and approve a budget for this year.

"The entire budget is late because of this," Gianaris said. "I hope we can overcome this, but we still have a big gap to cross to get an agreement and the date is rapidly coming up."

Some believe the city would fare well under the special master, while other areas of the state facing similar problems, such as Buffalo or Rochester, may not.

"The lawsuit was focused around New York City," said state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans). "If we go all the way to a special master, it would completely 'X' out the rest of the state."

Most Queens legislators, however, would rather reach an answer on their own terms.

"The city would get the needed funds, but it would probably cause difficulties," said Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan (D-Ridgewood). "It would be better to try to negotiate a three-way agreement."

Assemblywoman Barbara Clark (D-Queens Village) is calling on residents in Queens and across the city to demand a solution.

"The major point is that people have to make their voices heard and let the Legislature know they expect them to get this done," she said. "I'm hoping people will pick up their phones and pick up their pens and let Gov. Pataki and Joe Bruno know we have to do this."

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

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