Journal News. Journal News. 4/16/2006.

Last week's chest-thumping contest over the state budget between the governor and state legislative leaders aside, local school officials and taxpayers at least can be grateful for one thing: State education aid figures for the 2006-'07 school year that are contained in the Legislature's budget apparently can be counted on. That means voters can go to the polls next month to decide the fate of local school budgets a bit more confident than usual that they won't be blindsided by broken, even unmade, promises.

Last week Gov. George Pataki vetoed all kinds of spending that lawmakers had wanted, setting off a furor and, likely, court battles over budgetary authority. Yet the governor and would-be presidential candidate is willing, after all, to live with the state-aid "runs," the funding lists that local school districts saw after the Legislature passed a state budget by its April 1 deadline. In all, lawmakers added $1.1 billion to Pataki's original proposal, about a 7 percent increase in base aid for the state over last year.

And the Lower Hudson Valley region did even better, thanks to adjustments to the state's notoriously opaque funding formula to better reflect the high cost of living and hiring here, as well as unique "high-need'' student populations. As a result

• Districts in Westchester should see an increase of more than 11 percent in base aid to $428 million, and $67 million in funding for capital projects and high-tax districts.

• Putnam districts are expecting a 9 percent increase in base aid to $69 million, with $6 million in additional funding.

• In Rockland, districts would get a 7 percent increase in base aid to $150 million and $18 million in special funds.

"Generally,'' Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale, told The Journal News earlier this month, "we saw a very good education budget. Most districts saw an increase."

Notably, Pataki even preserved $6.5 billion of the Legislature's proposed $9 billion in proposed spending for building new schools and classrooms statewide, a nod perhaps to New York City's crying facilities needs and the unresolved Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit.

Even so, a review of school budget proposals being presented to the public this month show that district officials are trying hard to use the "windfall'' to keep property tax hikes at the single-digit level. Superintendents and boards of education are struggling with rising enrollments, still-escalating health insurance and pension costs, higher maintenance expenses on aging facilities and frightening jumps in fuel costs.

To counterbalance, many districts are planning staffing cuts. A sampling of approaches to budgeting for 2006-'07

• To keep its tax increase at less than 5 percent, Briarcliff Manor is looking at eliminating about 10 teaching and support positions, and cutting back on athletics and school clubs.

• After three years of double-digit tax hikes, Edgemont school taxes would rise almost 9 percent even after cutting five teaching positions.

• Lakeland, under scrutiny due to a $3 million shortfall in the 2005-'06 budget and a deficit of $2.2 million the previous year, is recommending eliminating dozens of positions — teachesr, monitors, part-time staffers and administrators — to keep its year-to-year spending increase under 8 percent.

• The Ramapo Central School District wants to use $2 million from its reserve fund to keep its increase less than 8 percent.

• Carmel is bracing for a loss of nearly 40 faculty and staff positions, and increases in class size, even if the budget, which is 9.5 percent larger than last year's, passes. If it fails to get voter approval, cuts will be even deeper.

All of that, mind you, is with Albany's largess this year. Imagine if the hand-me-down was late, as it had been most years over the last two decades.

Almost annually, as state budget negotiations meandered into the summer, local school districts had to prepare budgets for voters with fingers crossed that tax increases would eventually come in as pegged. And voters passed judgment on school budgets for school years that started July 1 with Albany aid their biggest question mark.

This year, districts "win" on two fronts: more aid, nailed down. That means they can prepare and release their budgets along the time line that state law requires. Projected school property tax rates contained in them can be taken at face value. Taxpayers can review both their districts' academic and property-tax reports cards.

Finally, voters can go to the polls May 16 more confident than usual that what the state says it will send will actually come.

And that is why on-time state budgets do matter.

Not to mention more money.