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In 'Unprecedented' Move, Cuomo Sends No. 2 to Talk Education Cuts

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

In an unusual move, Governor Andrew Cuomo sent his Lieutenant Governor, Robert Duffy, to defend his proposed school aid cuts to a joint hearing of the legislature’s education and fiscal committees.

Longtime state legislators called Cuomo’s decision to send his top lieutenant to the hearing “unprecedented."

Duffy reiterated what has been the governor’s message for months: schools, along with everyone else, will have to do more with less, and that simply adding more money won’t improve school children’s education.

“Just putting more money in the system does not work,” Duffy said. “I would equate it to turning on the heat in the house in the middle of winter and opening doors and windows. We have to look at the system.”

Lawmakers seemed caught by surprise by Duffy’s appearance. Democrats guardedly asked for guidance for schools on how to save money. Republicans praised the Democratic Lieutenant Governor for his candor.

Duffy listed what he called a  “menu of options available” that could achieve the $1.5 billion dollars in savings sought  “without impacting kids.”

He said schools have $1.5 billion in reserve funds and leftover monies from the federal stimulus program, which ended last year, enough to cover the reductions. Duffy said a wage freeze for teachers would save $1.1 billion and prevent teacher lay offs, and he said schools could save an additional $600 million dollars by requiring employees to contribute more to their health care.

He also suggested consolidation of school districts and services, and he said schools superintendents -- 40 percent of whom make more than $200,000 a year -- should take a salary cut.

Afterward, Duffy said too much of the recent record increases in school funding have been “geared toward adults and the bureaucracy.”

“When somebody comes back automatically and says, ‘We have to lay off teachers’ or ‘We have to take away music and science and art class for kids’, we don’t buy that,” Duffy said. “That to me is a knee-jerk reaction”.

Lawmakers seemed caught by surprise by Duffy’s appearance. Democrats guardedly asked for guidance for schools on how to save money. Duffy said Cuomo will have a team of experts to help them.

Republicans praised the Democratic Lieutenant Governor for his candor. Senator John De Francisco, the Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, called it “refreshing.”

“You didn’t have to be here, you didn’t have to face the heat, you’ve got all the education advocates behind you,” said DeFrancisco, gesturing toward the packed hearing room.

Those education advocates that DeFrancisco mentioned made their voices heard in a mini rally in the hearing room, but not until well after Duffy had left.

“Governor Cuomo, don’t kill CFE," they chanted.

Groups including the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which successfully sued the state for more education funding, charge that Cuomo is ignoring a 2006 court order that said more money needed to be spent to educate the state’s poorest school children. As a result of that decision, schools were to have received a 13 percent increase in funding this year, a rate that Cuomo says is “unsustainable” given the state’s dire financial plight.

Duffy said the Cuomo administration remains “committed” to fulfilling the court order.

“I don’t think that has changed,” said Duffy.

Other education officials who testified did not agree with Duffy’s assertions that the cuts can be absorbed without effecting school children. State Education Commissioner David Steiner said without more funding, the state may have to cancel some of its Regents exams.

New York City School Chancellor Cathie Black said the budget cuts will lead to thousands of teacher lay offs.

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