School funding was a key topic addressed at a state budget forum held by a group of Westchester Democratic state legislators at the Greenburgh Public Library last Friday.
Much of the discussion on the proposed $152.3 billion budget focused on the need to increase state aid for school districts in Westchester County and to provide districts relief from the tax cap.
Pleasantville Superintendent of Schools Mary Fox-Alter said she disagreed with a proposal from Gov. Andrew Cuomo to potentially cut school aid during the middle of the 2017-18 school year if he deemed that the federal government had not provided the state with enough aid.
Local school districts need additional state funding for programs to provide English language instruction and other programs to assist immigrant students, Fox-Alter said.
She said the current state law of requiring a budget that exceeds the tax cap to pass with at least 60 percent of voters must be changed. If 60 percent or more of the members of a board of education agree to override the tax cap then a simple majority of district voters should be enough to approve that budget.
Many of the ideas expressed by Fox-Alter were shared by Lisa Davis, executive director of the Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association, including a majority vote needed to override the tax cap.
Davis said the current aid formula is harming districts in Westchester because the state is overestimating its wealth. Three-quarters of school budgets in the county are spent on employee salaries and benefits, she said.
The cost of providing education is more expensive in Westchester than other parts of the state because the cost of living is higher than in other regions, Davis said.
Like Fox-Alter, Davis said school boards should have the power to exceed the state tax cap and those budgets should only need a majority vote of district residents.
Assemblyman David Buchwald (D-White Plains) said he agreed with Davis that the state aid formula are unfair to Westchester districts and needed to be changed to reflect the higher cost of living.
SUNY Purchase President Thomas Schwarz asked legislators for funding for capital improvements at the Performing Arts Center. One of the proposed projects for the theater is to make it handicapped accessible, he said.
The college also wants to make improvements at the facility so it may be used for additional arts and media instruction. Schwarz estimated the project would cost $32 million.
Buchwald responded that he wanted the college to provide additional information about the proposed capital projects.
Schwarz told legislators additional state aid was needed by public colleges in New York. Currently 35 percent of the college’s funds come from state aid, while 65 percent is provided through student tuition, he said.
About 100 students at SUNY Purchase would be eligible for free tuition under Cuomo’s plan.
In addition to Buchwald, other state legislators who attended the forum included Assemblyman Steve Otis (D-Rye), Assemblyman Gary Pretlow (D-Mount Vernon), Assemblywoman Sandra Galef (D-Ossining), Assemblyman Shelley Mayer (D-Yonkers), Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti (D-Pleasantville) and state Sen. George Latimer (D-Rye).