Teresa Masterson . Daily Freeman. 1/26/2004.

While area school officials and state legislators are pleased that Gov. George Pataki's education budget figures aren't as dire as last year, all say that there is more work to be done to increase support to school districts.

David Ernst of the New York State School Boards Association said the governor's proposed $14.6 billion for state education is a good starting point for the budget process, but he said that the $147 million increase in general aid to schools will not replace the $200 million that was cut in state aid to schools last year, nor cover the $650 million in new state aid the association estimates is needed to maintain the current school programs for another year.

"(Pataki) this year proposed an increase; by our deteriorating standards this is not bad," said Ernst. "This sets a tone. He seems to be looking to minimize the points of friction with the Legislature."

State Sen. Stephen Saland, R-Poughkeepsie, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, also said that Pataki's budget increase for education is good news and "far less confrontational than last year," when Pataki proposed a drastic cut in aid to education, outraging the state Legislature. The Legislature then overrode Pataki's veto of their proposed budget, passing a budget with a higher school aid total last June.

"The governor's budget message touched on themes that were totally consistent with what the Senate sees as priorities," Saland said. "But there's a lot to go on between yesterday (when the budget was proposed) and when we finally attain agreement."

While the governor's proposal was a good sign to most legislators and school officials, Coxsackie-Athens schools Superintendent Jeffrey Baltes said it also doesn't leave much room for growth. With retirement and insurance costs inflating every year, the proposed $44,000 increase for his school district would not allow for additional programs and may not even cover the increased costs.

"It's not devastation, but it's not going to enable school districts to keep up with initiatives we need to have in order to keep kids at the standards," said Baltes.

Baltes also said that when Pataki took an ax to the school aid in last year's proposed budget, the issue was very important to state representatives and action was swift. Since the governor's proposal is not devastating this year, "there may not be as much of a sense of urgency" to restore state aid for schools, he added.

Saland said that education is always the "800-pound gorilla in budget negotiations" and usually the last budget item before negotiations are complete, therefore it will not be ignored.

State Assemblyman Joel Miller, R-Poughkeepsie, agreed that aid to education will always be a top priority for the Legislature.

"I don't think we'll be lulled into a false sense of security, if for no other reason than the fact that it's an election year and school bills will come out before people go to the polls," said Miller.

But the Legislature does have some major issues to contend with this year in addition to the budget, said Saland, the biggest being a federal court's decision on the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. The Legislature and the governor have to make a plan by July 30 that will ensure all students in New York City, and theoretically statewide, an adequate education and that all high-needs school districts are well-funded.

"(The Campaign for Fiscal Equity) is going to be the big battleground this year," said state Assemblyman Thomas Kirwan, R-Newburgh. "If it was done right, districts like Kingston, Poughkeepsie, and Newburgh would be getting a lot more money - but don't hold your breath because the folks that represent wealthy districts won't go along with a plan that will take away from their districts in order to better fund high needs districts."

Though Pataki's proposal is an overall increase, local school districts may not actually see an increase if the plan is in fact adopted as is.

Ulster BOCES Superintendent Marty Ruglis said that Pataki's projected state aid package for schools is "not very friendly" to Ulster County districts. Ruglis said that Kingston, Rondout Valley, Saugerties, Ellenville and Marlboro all lose a small percentage of state aid in Pataki's proposal, while Onteora, Wallkill and Highland see only slight increases. Ruglis said that if the Legislature does not increase the amount of state aid to local schools in the approved state budget, the local taxpayers will bear the burden.

"Just about everybody loses (in Ulster County)," said Ruglis. "Since education is such a priority the state government should be providing a lot more of it, especially since they are making most of the mandates that are not funded."

Pataki's plan cuts numerous BOCES programs statewide, something that the governor tries to do in every budget, said Ruglis, a move which he called "mystifying."

"Some of our services do not have direct contact with students, but they save money so that school districts can put more money into the kids," Ruglis said.

As for the issue of unfunded mandates that the state has passed down to districts to keep kids at state and federal standards, Saland said that both the governor and the Senate have been discussing the possibility of repealing some of them so that school districts would be able to stop spending so much money on paperwork and clerical fees. The freed-up money could go toward other student programs. Saland said that such initiatives are still in the beginning stages.

Hyde Park schools Superintendent David Burpee said that he and his colleagues are continuously watching the governor and the Legislature for any movement on initiatives to repeal or reduce unfunded mandates. He said that there are currently 225 unfunded mandates school districts have to contend with every year.

"It would be extremely helpful," said Burpee. "We have an incredible amount of money and resources that go to unfunded mandates."

Saland is optimistic and believes that the state budget could be passed by April 1, while Kirwan is doubtful, but one opinion is shared: Much has to be done before any budget is passed.

"The Legislature will no doubt add more funds for education," said Miller.

"We're hoping that this is a starting point for the Legislature to improve those numbers and not an ending point," said Burpee.