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Cuomo urges schools to end fraud

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Thursday launched a spirited attack on school districts, which he said can deal with his proposed cuts in state aid by better management and ending what he suggested is widespread financial fraud in the system.

"Reduce the fraud. Reduce the abuse," Cuomo said.

But school officials say the governor is misrepresenting the situation in the state's nearly 700 districts.

"The comptroller audited every district over a five-year period and found fraud in 19 districts," said Robert N. Lowry Jr., deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

Cuomo had no tolerance for schools' claim of no fraud and no abuse.

"I don't believe it," he said. "I was the attorney general for four years. I investigated school districts. I investigated double-dipping. I investigated pensions. I investigated procurement contracts. I know there's fraud and abuse in school districts."

Cuomo made his remarks as legislative leaders -- who are trying to restore up to $300 million of his $1.5 billion planned school aid cut -- stood next to him in the Capitol's Red Room following a closed-door negotiating session on the budget.

At one point earlier in the news conference, Cuomo acknowledged that New York City is going to have to lay off teachers because of expected state aid cuts. But later he said districts' threats of teacher layoffs and classroom cuts are misplaced.

"It's a threat. It's a game. It's a game. They want to oppose the cuts politically, so what do they say? I'm going to hurt your child; your child won't get an education," he said of education advocates who have criticized his plan to cut state aid to schools by 7 percent.

"This is not about a teacher in the classroom," he said. "This is about less bureaucracy, less administrative overhead, less superintendent salaries, less high salaries for administrators, more efficiency in transportation, more efficiencies in back offices, more efficiency in payroll. That's what this is about. This is about recognizing the new economic reality, that government is responsible for management just like everyone else."

School officials said they dealt with state aid cuts last year.

"As the need for cuts continues year after year, it becomes harder and harder to avoid choices that affect what students get from their schools," Lowry said. "We wouldn't be contemplating things like laying off teachers, closing school buildings and eliminating Advanced Placement courses and sports if the choices were so easy."

Cuomo said schools could manage his cuts by using reserve funds, tapping into unspent federal stimulus funding and having teachers pay more for their health insurance benefits.

In a sign of the sensitive stage of the budget talks, legislative leaders did not criticize Cuomo's characterization of the school aid battle.

And what about the governor's attack on schools?

"I think we had a very positive meeting, and I think that's the essence of it," responded Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, normally a staunch ally of schools and teachers unions.

Is Cuomo right that schools just need to be more efficient?

"I think what's important is that we come to agreement in the next two weeks," Silver responded, referring to the April 1 start of the new fiscal year.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Nassau County, whose house this week backed restoration of nearly $300 million in school aid, said he agreed with many of Cuomo's points about waste and spending abuses in some schools.

State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, meanwhile, reported that most school districts have enough money in reserve accounts to cover Cuomo's proposed cut -- though he also warned that raiding the rainy day funds to that level would deplete most accounts statewide. He said 100 of the 700 districts don't have enough in reserves to match the cuts.

News Staff Reporter Mary B. Pasciak contributed to this report.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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