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REVISIONS TO SCHOOL AID MUST BE FAIR, OFFICIALS SAY

The future of state aid distribution to school districts dominated Saturday's annual Erie County Association of School Boards legislative breakfast meeting.

State lawmakers and school board members discussed the impact of a recent New York City court ruling on equitable distribution of state aid to poor districts.

If an appeal of the ruling fails, it could disrupt existing aid formulas and send about $3 billion to needy districts throughout the state. The school boards association favors changes in the distribution but wants to make sure it is fair to all children across the state.

"We desperately try to make sure districts don't bottom out. The judge's decision would mean $1.4 billion to New York City, and we don't have that kind of money," said State Sen. Dale M. Volker, R-Depew.

The legislators noted that in the more affluent school districts in Western New York suburbs and on Long Island, property owners already pay significant amounts in school taxes.

If a major change in state funding occurred, it could intensify the property tax burden in those communities.

"We provide more dollars for education than any other state in the union," Volker said.

Though distribution of school aid is tied up in court, the State Legislature can continue to work on the issue, said State Sen. Mary Lou Rath, R-Williamsville.

"We want to be part of the solution. We know our school districts best, and we want more flexibility," Rath said.

The solution is more state funds, said Assemblyman Paul A. Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga.

"In my view, more money is needed in the system, and that will help with equitable distribution," Tokasz said.

Citing Gov. George E. Pataki's proposal to consolidate 11 state school aid formulas into one "flex-aid" formula for sharing $9.8 billion, Assemblyman James P. Hayes, R-Amherst, said legislators need to seek input from local school officials on the governor's idea.

By creating "flex-aid," districts would have greater freedom to determine where they most need to spend to support their particular needs, Hayes explained.

Association members encouraged the legislators to look at proposals for more simplified and more equitable funding formulas.

When the subject arose of "transitional funding" for school districts that have lost state dollars to charter schools, Deputy Assembly Speaker Arthur O. Eve, D-Buffalo, expressed support for replacement dollars.

Eve, who opposes charter schools, said it is important that a strong financial commitment be made to public education because it translates into future savings.

He cited the Jan. 21 slaying in Buffalo of 17-year-old James J. Mack, who was tortured and burned, allegedly by five young people. Eve noting that all of the accused spent time in the Erie County Youth Detention Center and in a homeless shelter.

"If we don't get at the problems early, we end up paying much more in penal costs and public assistance for these kids," said Eve.

Volker said he supports replacing funds lost by districts where charter schools have opened.

On the topic of safety to schoolchildren, school board members expressed concern over a new state law that requires districts to fingerprint and conduct police background searches on new employees starting July 1.

Though he supports the law, Hamburg Central School District Board Member Andrew S. Loeb said that school districts are concerned about the time it will take to conduct background checks.

Tokasz mentioned a Pataki proposal that would give school districts some breathing room.

Under the proposal, the conditionally hired workers could be dismissed if it turns out they have a criminal background.

Clarence Central School Board Vice President Jane Sweet expressed concern over the state Education Department's regulation that prevents school districts from requiring counseling for students with disciplinary problems.

"We want to have this option. It is a form of intervention for students disciplined for using drugs," Sweet said. "We could require them to have counseling before letting them return to school."

State legislators said they would see what they could do to resolve the issue.

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