A tense and high-stakes battle is taking shape over the way Albany funds schools, and the outcome will have a major impact on students, teachers and taxpayers across the state.

With a court-imposed deadline to overhaul the state school aid formula drawing near, Gov. George E. Pataki came to Buffalo Tuesday to stump for a plan that would increase assistance to Buffalo schools by $131 million after five years.

But as much as numbers, Pataki's visit had to do with Albany-style political maneuvering -- who's stalling, who's bluffing and who's to blame.

Pataki said his $6.5 billion proposal would provide all school districts with state aid hikes of at least $100,000 in 2009, and avoid the "Robin Hood" approach of taking from rich districts to give to poor ones. But he did not provide specific aid numbers for districts other than the state's big cities.

Critics said his figures were contrived and misleading, and that he isn't doing nearly enough for deeply troubled urban schools.

Assembly Democrats today are set to unveil their school financing plan, a $7.2 billion package that includes no reliance on additional federal funding -- unlike plans of Pataki and Senate Republicans. The plan, which will include a breakdown for every district in the state, envisions no further expansion of gambling. Pataki's plan calls for eight new casinos.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver branded as "fictitious" numbers that Pataki announced in Buffalo Tuesday.

"I welcome the federal money, but the governor shouldn't be going around claiming it," Silver said.

The governor's hourlong defense of his plan -- and similar appearances later in the day in Rochester and Syracuse -- underlined the increasingly crucial nature of the dispute over school aid, which is dominating the legislative scene in Albany. It has huge consequences because:

If Pataki and the Legislature can't agree on a new approach, the courts may decide how nearly $15 billion in school aid is divided up. School officials from Niagara Falls to Long Island fear that would result in additional money only for New York City, since the court case technically does not involve 700-plus other school districts in the state.

When legislatures in other states failed to satisfy court orders on school funding, acrimonious court cases dragged on for years and even decades.

Few political issues are as sensitive as school aid, since more than 700 public school districts scramble for state funds in order to build strong classroom programs and keep local property taxes down.

The logjam over school aid is stalling an accord on the larger state budget, which is already more than two months late.

All sides already are blaming each other for the delay, and admit a resolution remains distant.

Focus appreciated

Buffalo School Superintendent Marion Canedo said it's a good sign that the issue appears to have the attention of the governor and lawmakers, and is receiving intense public visibility. "I'm glad everyone is focused on it," she said.

Under Pataki's plan, Buffalo schools would receive roughly $10 million in additional aid next year, and $131 million more in 2009 than it is receiving now, he said.

Canedo said she has not had an opportunity to explore the details of Pataki's proposal, and could not comment on its possible impact.

"I really don't know the mechanics of that," she said. "But I do know we need the money. Our kids need more and always seem to have less."

Steven Sanders, chairman of the State Assembly's Education Committee, said Buffalo should have been in line for that amount of new funding even without a court mandate.

"I don't think that remotely deals with the extra needs that Buffalo has," said Sanders, a Manhattan Democrat.

Pataki portrayed his plan as a generous but fiscally prudent approach that would satisfy last June's court order that the state come up with a new funding formula by July 30.

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity, the group that won the historic lawsuit, is seeking a school aid increase of $8.5 billion after four years.

'Totally inadequate'

The governor said spending that much more on education would leave the state overextended financially and unable to fund improvements in health care and other crucial areas.

Michael Rebell, director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, said Pataki is being unreasonable, and simply trotting out proposals he made in January.

"The amount of money is totally inadequate," Rebell said. "He's the one who should have pushed this process, and instead we're getting a rehash of the same unacceptable numbers, just packaged differently."

Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, said Pataki is failing his constitutional obligation to satisfy the court ruling.

"The governor should look into the eyes of a student sitting in a classroom with too many students, insufficient supplies and programs, and tell that student that he or she has to wait," said Rumore, a member of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity's advisory board.

Pataki's proposal revolves around $2.5 billion in education aid from state gambling revenue, another $2 billion pot of state funds, and an anticipated $2 billion increase from the federal government. In addition, New York City would receive an extra $1.5 billion.

Rebell said the federal aid and about half the state funding would have been forthcoming even with the court decision, and that Pataki is playing a shell game.

Assembly leaders are opposed to counting on gambling revenues, and question Pataki's budget assumptions. His plan, they said, relies on $2 billion in federal aid over which Albany has no control, and which would be provided even without the court case.

Court could decide

Unless the issue is resolved soon, Pataki warned, the dispute could be decided in State Supreme Court, and provide extra funds only for New York City.

The Supreme Court decision -- affirmed by the Court of Appeals -- found that students there are not receiving a "sound, basic education," but did not specifically address other districts in the state. But if Republicans and Democrats in Albany agree on one thing, it's that the any new state funding plan be statewide.

"The last thing in the world you want is the courts running the system." Pataki said. "Buffalo and the other 177 high-needs districts would be left holding the bag. We can't let that happen."

Canedo echoed Pataki's fear that the courts might provide additional funds only for New York City. "All of us have that concern," she said. "I don't know anyone who doesn't."

Regina Eaton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education in Albany, urged Pataki and the Legislature to iron out a statewide plan before the court steps in.

"We don't want the school aid issue to return to the courts," she said. "But we also don't want a plan that masquerades as reform but sells our schools short."

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com