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Delay of State Aid a Blow to NY Schools Already Burdened by Unfunded Mandates

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Withholding of promised funds, fiscal uncertainty and now a lawsuit from embattled educators? It's not exactly The Most Wonderful Time of Year for school districts across the state of New York.

Governor David Paterson's decision last week to withhold some $146 million in state aid to schools -- part of a plan to put a total of $750 aid on hold to avoid insolvency for New York State -- came just as school administrators were beginning the arduous task of figuring out how to come up with the money for next year's budget.

Educators are scrambling to figure out what that shortage will mean in actual dollars - the city of White Plains estimates a loss of up to $80,000; In Mount Vernon that loss could be as high as $3.5 million - even as the legality of the move is brought into question. (The New York State United Teachers union has joined with other educators to file a lawsuit against the governor.) An additional $4 million in STAR property-tax rebates has also been put on hold.

But as varying degrees of jeopardized loss are calculated there is at least one certainty: the withholding of aid promised months ago and factored into current spending plans only serves to further choke school districts already beleaguered by recent rounds of belt tightening. Speak to any school administrator today on whether that belt can get any tighter and you're likely to hear the same thing: There simply aren't any notches left.

It's easy to see Paterson's decision as particularly Grinch-ian. Especially when you consider that it took school districts years to financially recover from the last time school aid was curbed mid-year (back in 1990). But that wouldn't be the whole story. Schools are hamstrung to a far greater degree by the growing number of "unfunded mandates" - those programs required by state and federal governments that bind schools to shell out money for programs they had no hand in deciding and in many cases have no ability to finance.

Many mandates have improved school standards, particularly in areas like special education where legislation has made a real difference in our classrooms. But in recent years, individual acts of strictly mandated legislation that come with no money attached have gone well beyond helping the business of educating children. They now reach into the realm of the absurd.

Consider, for example, the fact that any teacher working in a public school is allotted up to four hours of time off for a mammogram or prostate test they have the right to schedule during school hours. The result is not only a disruption of the classroom but also obligates schools to hire a substitute teacher to cover the absence.

Or how about the bill that requires all school districts to pay for each student to have a handheld calculator -- even in those circumstances when parents have the means to pay for that item themselves.

Even those mandates that come with the promise of reimbursement can result in prohibitive cost to schools. Take the largest federal mandate pertaining to required special educational services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. While the goal of the act is a worthy one, costs associated with this law have never been funded at the promised rate of 40 percent. Instead, the federal government pays school districts a woefully inadequate 17 percent of total costs.

The frustrating list goes on: the public school subsidizing of private school costs in areas like health assessment and transportation; the fact that schools in New York are obligated to hire four separate contractors for any school construction project; the questionable obligation of having a defibrillator (at a minimum cost of $100,000 per school) on every field trip.

These sorts of mandates are daunting for schools in New York, particularly when rising costs related to labor and benefits already take up some 70 percent of the budgetary pie.

That doesn't leave a lot to negotiate when it comes to helping children learn, particularly when blows like the one from Albany come out of the blue. It's not the kind of good cheer we want to hear, particularly at this time of year. But inadequately funded mandates are a growing dilemma Albany lawmakers need to more carefully address every time they claim they want to improve education in New York.