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Cuomo picks school district winners and losers

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Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther and Sen. Jen Metzger are once again urging Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign legislation that would wipe away penalties faced by the Monticello and Roscoe school districts.
These fines were levied because of inadvertent bookkeeping oversights that date back many years. In the case of Roscoe, for instance, the fine is connected to the installation of a heating system and a lawsuit with the contractor. Further complicating the matter is that the New York State Education Department (SED) did not tell the district the bill was late until 30 months after it was due.

This would be frustrating in itself, but making it even more frustrating is the fact that Cuomo has signed legislation that wipes away penalties for two other schools that were being punished for the exact same infraction.

“The governor has already signed a bill to forgive the Newburgh and Chester penalties, which I supported,” said Gunther, who sponsored legislation that was unanimously adopted by the legislature to wipe away the penalties. “However, Monticello and Roscoe should be no different. These bills passed both houses of the legislature nearly two months ago.”

She went on to say that Cuomo’s office has said each situation is “unique.” “Each school district in the state that has had a building-aid penalty imposed is ‘unique,’” Gunther said. Roscoe’s total aid received from the state was reduced by more than 1% this year and Monticello’s increased a little more than 2.5%. In contrast, Newburgh and Chester both saw their total-state aid increase by more than 3.5%.”

The reduction in aid for the Roscoe School District in rural Sullivan County is particularly troubling. When the budget was agreed to in March, Cuomo’s office put out a statement that said, “This budget raises the total education budget to $27 billion, but it introduces a new formula called the Education Equity Formula, which would distribute the money not just to the poorer districts but to the poorer schools in the poorer districts.”

Sounds good, but it’s clearly not working out for Roscoe, and the bookkeeping penalty is part of the problem. As part of the penalty, the district paid $145,000 to the SED on June 28. If Cuomo doesn’t sign the legislation to wave the penalty, the school will have to pay $1.1 million over 10 years out of a $9 million budget.

It’s also unclear why the governor changed his mind in the case of Newburgh and Chester. He vetoed the exact same legislation in December 2018, less than a year ago, wiping away a $12.75 million fine for Newburgh, and a $3.2 million fine for Chester.

“We need some sort of rhyme or rhythm for these building-aid bills. Last year, the governor signed a couple and vetoed the rest. I hope we’re not going to see the same thing this year. If we do, the legislature should reconvene and override every single one of them. I urge everyone to call the governor’s office and let them know just how important these bills are to our community,” said Gunther.

Metzger joined her colleague in calling out the governor. “The governor did the right thing for Newburgh and Chester last month by signing their penalty forgiveness bills, and now he needs to do the right thing for Sullivan County. Every child in New York, regardless of zip code, deserves a quality education and a safe learning environment. These penalties, imposed for the late filing of a construction report years ago, were excessive to begin with and impose a great burden on the Roscoe and Monticello school districts.”

Cuomo has often talked about the importance of education. He believes a college education is so important that he set up a program whereby a college education can now be free for many people. But if he keeps these fines in place for the two school districts in Sullivan County he will be reducing the services or staff available to their students, and perhaps making it just a bit less likely that some students will ever make it to higher education. Gunther and Metzger are right. Cuomo should sign the legislation.

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