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Exactly one week after New York Governor George Pataki proposed fundamental changes in the way New York funds education, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Leland DeGrasse’s ruling in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case may force the Legislature to deal with a gnarly issue a lot sooner than planned. Observers at the state Capitol on Wednesday suggested that the ruling that New York’s funding systems fails to provide New York City school students with the sound education required by law will immediately move a long-lingering issue to the forefront of this legislative session. “It is now a front-burner issue that could consume a lot of time, and one that could certainly have its ripples felt well beyond the region addressed in the case,” said state Assemblyman Paul D. Tonko, an Amsterdam Democrat and member of the lower house’s Education Committee. Senator John R. Kuhl, a Republican from the Finger Lakes and member of the Education Committee in the upper house, concurred. “This really moves it to the forefront because the governor now has to come forth with a formula that complies with this judge’s decision, or appeal,” Kuhl said. In his State of the State address last week, the governor called the current state aid formula a “dinosaur” and said he would propose major changes in the way schools are funded when he unveils his budget next week. Pataki generally said school districts should have far more autonomy and proposed a new formula where districts would be guaranteed more money with no cap on the increase they could receive. Under the current scheme, some 40 different formulas are used to distribute about $13.6 billion in elementary education aid. The governor would consolidate many of the formulas and return decision-making authority to local school boards. Last week, the reaction to the governor’s proposal was cautiously warm while lawmakers await the details that will emerge in the budget. Now, however, there is a sense of urgency. Under the decision, the state Legislature has only until Sept. 15 to come up with a plan, and distribute aid, to satisfy multiple competing political constituencies. Education funding has typically divided urban and rural schools; urban, rural and suburban schools; liberals and conservatives; Democrats and Republicans; teachers’ unions and school boards; upstate and downstate. And pundits expect this battle to be even more divisive than most. LEGISLATORS’ REACTIONS The leaders of both houses of the state Legislature on Wednesday claimed they had always fought for equitable and appropriate education funding, called on the governor to take a leadership role by coming forth with a specific plan for reconfiguring the school aid formulas and vowed to work toward a reasonable agreement. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, in a joint statement issued with Education Committee Chairman Steven Sanders, said the Democrats are “committed to working with Governor Pataki and the State Senate to implement the court’s decision immediately.” Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno said the Republicans who control the upper house will take a close look at Wednesday’s ruling with an eye toward “providing local districts with greater flexibility in deciding how state aid should be spent.” It was not immediately clear Wednesday whether the state would appeal. Timothy G. Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Board’s Association, said in a statement that the state should implement reforms immediately and not delay until appeals have been exhausted. Senator Kuhl, an attorney, said the state should appeal, and the Court of Appeals should issue the final word on an issue of such grave importance and financial significance, if only so the ruling is viewed as one reached from a statewide perspective and not just a New York City perspective. “Most of us expected this decision, coming from a New York City judge,” Kuhl said. “I guess I look at any decision coming out of the City of New York that awards more money to the city as being partially biased. I would think the governor is almost obligated to appeal. “ Regardless of the decision or any appeals, Assemblyman Tonko said the attention garnered by the ruling will likely act as a springboard to propel to the top of the agenda an issue which virtually everyone acknowledged the state Legislature should address sooner or later. He said the result will likely benefit every region of the state, although there will almost certainly be a lot of negotiation, and probably litigation, before it is over.

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