With New York’s state legislature opening for business, Agudath Israel of America on Monday night released its list of priorities the premier Jewish organization hopes Albany will enact in the 2017 budget, which is due in less than three months.
In a letter sent by Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Agudah’s executive vice president urged the legislature to pay up past debts for services and increase security funding for yeshivos.
Cuomo will release his proposed budget on Wednesday afternoon, together with his State of the State address.
First on Agudah’s list was a request for the state to compensate nonpublic schools for taking attendance, something state law requires of them under the Comprehensive Attendance Policy, or CAP. A long-held debt of about $300 million was mostly reimbursed last year in what Cuomo said was in lieu of an unsuccessful push for a tuition tax credit. But the amount — $250 million — leaves a balance of at least $50 million.
Another issue is the Mandated Services reimbursement, which pays yeshivos for various services it does for the state. Rabbi Zwiebel noted that New York City, Buffalo and Rochester recently changed their vaccination requirements, adding costs to nonpublic schools. Many yeshivos have enacted zero-tolerance policies, barring students from attending classes unless they undergo the immunizations.
However, the rate of reimbursement has not changed in over 30 years. Rabbi Zwiebel proposed that the governor increase the budget for Mandated Services by $5 million, to help schools cover these costs.
With the recent escalation of terrorism in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States, Agudah wrote that the need to make yeshivos more secure is much more pressing. Nonpublic schools have received $4.5 million in funding for security the past three years. Rabbi Zwiebel urged the state to budget a boosted $10 million, and to expand the list of equipment that schools can purchase.
Rabbi Zwiebel also requested that Cuomo reopen the Office of Nonpublic Schools within the State Education Department, which had previously been headed by a high-level official, to serve as a liaison to the nonpublic school community.
“The over 400,000 children who attend nonpublic schools in New York State represent approximately 13 percent of all schoolchildren statewide,” Rabbi Zwiebel said. “As you work on developing your executive budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year, we respectfully appeal to you once again to bear in mind the needs of these children…”
In related news, the state Senate on Monday voted to end a policy that allowed the state to withhold a portion of school funding from local districts to prop up the state’s overall budget.
The practice, which has exacerbated the financial state of districts such as East Ramapo, dates back to the recession, when the state faced billion-dollar budget deficits. Then-Gov. David Paterson signed it into law in 2010 on a one-time basis, but lawmakers have kept it in place ever since.
The Gap Elimination Adjustment is estimated to have resulted in $45 million less for the East Ramapo school district, which covers Monsey and New Square.
Its devastating impact on the district is “huge,” according to Aron Wieder, a Rockland legislator who is a former president of the East Ramapo school board. “It essentially killed a once-great public school district.”
In recent years lawmakers have gradually reduced the amount withheld from local districts, and now the policy primarily affects rural and suburban districts more than high-need urban districts.
The Senate’s Republican majority say the policy is unfair and is making its elimination a priority in 2016. The measure to totally eliminate the practice now goes to the Assembly.
The Senate also, for the fourth year running, passed far-reaching legislation on Monday to drastically help private schools. The vote count backing the Education Investment Tax Credit — 47 for with only 15 against — showed a majority of Democrats supporting it. It is three votes more than the bill received last year.
The bill, which was sponsored by Sens. Simcha Felder and Marty Golden, would allow 90 percent of charitable donations for education to be written off as a dollar-for-dollar tax deduction, with a cap at $1 million.
The measure will not refund tuition payments as an earned income credit. This contrasts with a version proposed last year by Cuomo, who divided the bill in two — half for donors’ tax deduction and half going directly to parents, whether they pay taxes or not.
Felder urged Cuomo to include it in his budget proposal and not link it to other items as he initially did last year.
“It’s about time that tuition-paying parents start to get the relief they deserve,” Felder said in a statement to Hamodia. “This bill needs to become law so as to at long last make this goal a reality.”