ALBANY, New York (Reuters) - Claiming local school districts are playing “political games,” New York’s governor on Thursday defended his $1.5 billion cut to education spending.
Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed cut in state aid to schools -- the largest in history -- is aimed at closing a $10 billion budget gap for the next fiscal year.
Cuomo told reporters on Thursday that his cuts average 2.7 percent per school district, and could be offset by rooting out inefficiencies, using reserve funds and lowering the salaries of superintendents.
“I know there is waste and abuse in the school districts; 2.7 percent in waste and abuse,” Cuomo said after a private meeting with legislative leaders. “Districts say ‘we don’t have any.’ I don’t believe it.”
Teachers’ unions and school officials have attacked Cuomo’s plan, saying that they’ve already made steep cuts in recent years, and that unfunded state mandates are driving up costs. Aid was cut by $1.4 billion in 2010 after being frozen in 2009. School districts have also assailed the governor’s proposal to cap property tax increases.
Cuomo’s comments came only hours after State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli released a report that found most school districts across the state could use their reserves to offset the proposed cuts. But he warned that the practice is a “one-time fix” and would only cover year-to-year cuts and not rising costs.
“Many school districts are going to have to tighten their belts another notch next year and beyond,” DiNapoli said in a statement.
PAY CAPS AND MILLIONAIRE‘S TAX
In addition to the cuts in aid, Cuomo has proposed a salary cap for school superintendents that would be based on total district enrollment, with a maximum salary of $175,000 per year. The highest-paid superintendent in New York currently makes about $386,000. The superintendent of the Buffalo School District told a reporter earlier this month that he would quit if the cap passes.
“This is not about teachers in a classroom. It is about less bureaucracy, less administrative overhead, less superintendent salary,” Cuomo said. “The days where government can just throw money at the problem, raise more taxes and throw more money at the problem, are over.”
The state Assembly is seeking a tax surcharge on New Yorkers who earn more than $1 million a year in order to restore $200 million to schools. The state Senate wants to put an additional $260 million toward school aid, in part by rejecting a Cuomo proposal to create $500 million in competitive grant programs for schools. Cuomo has said that he will not back the tax and that the grants are “essential.”
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver deflected questions from reporters on Thursday, saying only that “what’s important is that we all come to an agreement in the next two weeks,” in time for the April 1 budget deadline.
Billy Easton, the executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, a nonprofit group backed by teachers’ unions, said that the governor’s comments are insensitive to the plight of school districts faced with substantial cuts.
“Local schools are slashing programs and preparing pink slips for teachers; it’s in the headlines of every paper statewide,” he said. “Governor Cuomo is in denial when he says he can cut $1.5 billion from schools without hurting kids.”
Editing by Jan Paschal