The fight between Governor Andrew Cuomo and school districts flared up Thursday when the governor delivered a stern lecture to schools that have complained about the proposed budget cuts to education — ripping critics for playing a "game" and issuing empty "threats."
Speaking after a budget meeting with legislative leaders, Cuomo was asked about warnings by schools and their advocates, who say teachers will be laid off, programs will be cut and children will suffer. The comments appeared to incense the governor, who said schools, — which have received record funding increases in recent years — can manage the cuts through greater efficiencies and by cutting administrative salaries.
"Reduce the waste. Reduce the fraud. Reduce the abuse,” said Cuomo, who said as attorney general for four years he discovered plenty of waste in school systems, including pension double-dipping and abuse in procurement contracts.
Cuomo also accused school districts, teachers unions and advocacy groups of playing politics and using children as "pawns."
"It's a threat. It’s a game," said Cuomo. "They want to oppose the cuts politically, so what do they say? 'I'm going to hurt your child,'"
Senate and Assembly leaders, who are seeking to restore a small portion of the $1.5 billion in school aid cuts, did not disagree with Cuomo’s accusations. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos said schools superintendents should probably earn less money.
"When you have superintendents going out with pensions over $300,000, $350,000, to me, that's abuse," Skelos said. "That's unconscionable."
Skelos, a Republican from Long Island, said some Long Island schools, as well as schools in upstate rural areas, have been shortchanged and that needs to be remedied.
Billy Easton, with the Alliance for Quality Education, a group that advocates for more funding for schools, said it's the governor who is playing politics.
"He's the one making robocalls into people's homes. He's the one who's got the millionaires' committee associated with him that's sending distorted mailers going out to people’s homes," said Easton.
The state Democratic Party has financed robocalls featuring a message from Cuomo promoting his budget cuts, which has gone out to many New York households.
The Committee to Save New York, a group made up of business and real estate industry leaders, has raised millions of dollars to support Cuomo's fiscally austere spending plan, and has been running radio and television ads backing the governor.
"The goal of his allies is to cut school funding and provide tax cuts for millionaires," said Easton. "His budget will hurt kids."
AQE backs extending an income tax surcharge on millionaires. The proposal is in the Assembly Democrats budget plan, but the Senate and Cuomo have rejected it.
State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli bolstered some of the governor's claims. In a report issued Thursday, the comptroller finds most school districts could manage the proposed cuts for this year anyway.
"It's important to point out that for most of those districts the various reserves that they have would be depleted within one school year," DiNapoli said.
DiNapoli said there are disparities around the state, and that schools in the central part of the state are the least prepared to weather the cuts, with 100 out of around 700 school districts lacking the reserves to finance even one year's worth of reductions.
Cuomo, in a statement, welcomed the comptroller's report saying that if schools are willing to renegotiate salaries and benefits with teachers, they would likely be able to absorb the cuts without harming school children.