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State aid for Buffalo schools rises 4.35 percent

ALBANY – State financial aid for Buffalo schools will be increased by 4.35 percent, or $23.3 million, for the fiscal year beginning Tuesday.

The Niagara Falls district will see $3.2 million more in state aid, or a 3.87 percent increase, while Williamsville will go up 8.12 percent, or by $2.3 million. Other large school district numbers show Kenmore-Tonawanda district going up 4.71 percent, or by $1.9 million, while the West Seneca district will get $1.8 million more in funding than last year, a 5.17 percent increase.

Overall, schools in Erie County will be getting $46 million more in state aid in 2014-15 than in 2013-14, while Niagara County schools overall will see $10.6 million more. State aid for suburban schools goes a long way toward determining how much property owners will have to pay in local taxes

State lawmakers received those figures when they returned Sunday evening to Albany to hear final details on the deal for a new 2014-15 state budget in advance of the Assembly and Senate voting on the $138 billion fiscal plan starting this morning.

In one of Albany’s strictest information distribution rituals – in which documents are kept sealed in a state Education Department vault until the last moment – lawmakers were provided Sunday night with district-by-district funding allotments for schools in their districts, a 151-page document that less than a handful of people know how to create but is one of the most eagerly anticipated stack of papers lawmakers read each year.

In a clear signal that the state is seeking to promote a $2 billion education bond act going on the November ballot, the school numbers also include a separate line item for how much districts will receive – but only if voters in the fall say “yes.” The money to be borrowed by state taxpayers, as proposed, could go for building infrastructure improvements. Or, much to the criticism of fiscal watchdogs about the use of long-term borrowing for short-term needs, schools can also tap into the state bond fund for purchasing such items as laptops.

The funding documents suggest the bond money will not be distributed based on specific needs or ideas for improving schools, but on a funding formula that was used in 2013 for state aid to schools. Buffalo, for instance, would get $56 million if the bond act passes, with Erie County schools, in total, in line for $108 million. New York City schools would get about 40 percent of the bond act money, or $783 million.

Suburban districts across the state did well with a bump in money, pushed heavily by Senate Republicans, aimed at the Gap Elimination Adjustment; that is a 4-year-old line item in the different categories that make up a district’s state aid funding formula that Albany has been using to grab money back from schools to balance its books. The result, for some districts, is aid increases far surpassing the inflation rate.

Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat, said lawmakers also sought to improve funding to districts with large numbers of English-learning students, which helped push up aid for Buffalo.

“The Buffalo school district number is trending upward, but make no mistake, we understand most districts are getting less state aid than four years ago, and we understand the layoffs and pain that has caused across New York State,” Ryan said.

Whether the state budget will actually be on time is uncertain; two major bills – pertaining to how funding programs will work for education and health programs, which total more than half the budget – were not printed before the midnight Friday deadline for the “legal” three-day aging process. Without a “message of necessity” from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has been criticized for using that end-run around the constitutional bill aging process, it means the budget will end up being late for the first time in four years.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver says “it doesn’t matter” if Cuomo provides a message of necessity for the two bills. “We’re going to have a budget on-time tomorrow night. All the appropriation bills will be done on time without messages,” Silver said Sunday.

While the appropriation bills that set specific spending levels for different areas of the budget did all get introduced before midnight Friday – thus permitting the aging process before today’s vote – two major Article VII “language” bills that describe how the state money is to be spent failed to make that deadline.

By any Albany standard imposed on past governors, it means the budget will be late unless Cuomo provides messages for those two bills and they then get passed by both legislative houses by midnight tonight. Practically speaking, it matters little. But the governor has made much in recent weeks that this would be another on-time budget, something that for decades was often elusive in Albany until he took office in 2011.

“It’s a matter of convenience more than anything,” Silver said of a possible message request. “If there are messages it will be for convenience. We’re going to be here Tuesday regardless, so it really doesn’t matter to us.”

While the major areas of the budget have already been revealed over the past several days, areas that haven’t gotten such keen focus in Albany became clearer Sunday.

The final budget deal has the State University of New York losing on one of its biggest financial requests from the governor and lawmakers. SUNY officials requested $82 million from the state to cover the collective bargaining agreement costs of college employees whose contract talks were not directly handled by SUNY. Cuomo rejected the request, and lawmakers said they could not find enough money to cover that amount and pay for other programs they considered priorities.

One is the Tuition Assistance Program, a need-based financial aid program for New York residents attending college. That program is getting its first increase in 14 years – a $165 increase – to a maximum award of $5,165. The Legislature also drove more money to other college aid programs for low-income students, as well as increased state aid for community colleges. Lawmakers also added $7 million in direct state support for SUNY.

“It’s not nearly what the students need. It’s not nearly what the schools need, but it’s what we could do within the context,” said Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, a Manhattan Democrat who heads the higher education committee.

The new budget will also contain provisions, opposed by some industry stakeholders, to reduce the risk of what advocates call surprise health care bills patients get – often after an expensive operation – by a physician who they did not know was operating out of their health insurance network.

Other components include a new statewide weather detection system, creation of a state college for emergency preparedness, homeland security and cybersecurity degrees and a voluntary program for gas stations located near key upstate highways to have backup power sources.

Lawmakers are supposed to start voting on the budget at around 9 a.m. today.