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Cuomo puts end to special education bill

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Posted: Thursday, August 2, 2012 12:52 pm

Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed a bill on Tuesday that would have made school districts responsible for funding the placement of special education students in the private school of their family’s choice.

The bill, which passed both the state Senate and Assembly in June, would have required local school district committees on special education to account for the “home life and cultural environment” of disabled students when making school placements, while also mandating that families be reimbursed within 30 days for the tuition payments of the private institutions where their children would be placed.

After vetoing the bill, Cuomo released a written statement explaining his opposition to the legislation.

“This constitutes an overly broad and ambiguous mandate that would result in incalculable significant additional costs to be borne by every school district and taxpayer,” the governor’s statement said.

Cuomo’s veto of the bill was met with significant relief from local public school administrators.

“We are very relieved at Gov. Cuomo’s decision to veto this last minute proposed legislation, which would have had the potential for catastrophic long-range financial consequences for Great Neck and all public school districts,” Great Neck Public Schools Board of Education President Barbara Berkowitz said. 

During their meeting earlier this month, Great Neck school trustees approved a resolution in opposition to the special education bill.

“We were shocked at this last-minute plan, which was being voted upon without the opportunity for public discussion and are grateful that Gov. Cuomo recognized that this would amount to another unfunded mandate being imposed on all communities within the state,” Berkowitz said.

Before this week’s veto, Great Neck Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Dolan said he expected Cuomo to pass the bill.

“The governor’s decision to veto this bill was appropriate, and I was pleased to see his acknowledgement that this would have created another ‘unfunded mandate,’” Dolan said. “These items keep re-appearing because so many people think that their special cause should be an exception to the rule. In an environment where taxes are capped, there is just no room left for any new state impositions.”

Along with the Great Neck Board of Education, the Nassau and Suffolk counties’ school board associations came out against the bill prior to Cuomo’s veto.

New Hyde Park-Garden City Park School District Superintendent Robert Katulak said the New York State Council of Superintendents sent 200 direct e-mails and letters to Cuomo’s office warning of the “debilitating effects” of the bill if were to be passed.

Katulak said the bill could have had an “astronomical financial burden” on school districts across the state.

“I think the governor listened and realized that you can’t always have a blank check for everything,” Katulak said. “To have something imposed on you after you develop the budget is something that can have very, very long lasting effects on (the district) because you can’t budget for something that you don’t know is coming.”

Despite providing opposition to the bill, Katulak said the overwhelming opposition to the bill was merited.

“Our major goal is what’s best for children, but within reason and within protocol that the federal government and the state government sets up,” he said.

East Williston School District Superintendent Elaine Kanas said the proposed bill also violated portions of the Individuals With Disabilities Act, along with putting a strain on school district’s budgets. 

“This legislation would have created yet a new unfunded mandate that would have come at excessive cost to the taxpayer,” Kanas said. “That is the reason that it was encouraging that indeed the governor is serious about not putting unfunded mandates on school districts, which ultimately are unfunded mandates on taxpayers.” 

State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) and state Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein (D-Brooklyn) sponsored the bill. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Center) and state Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg (D-Long Beach) were co-sponsors of the bill.

“This veto was a good decision,” Herricks School District Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Deirdre Hayes said. “I’m glad that (the governor) did read it more closely and decided that way.”

Hayes said her district’s opposition to the bill was not necessarily based on its impact to special education students. She said the bill “seemed to be equating special education needs with personal preferences.”

“Certainly (the bill) would have placed potentially enormous burdens on schools unnecessarily,” Hayes said. 

Before Cuomo’s veto on Tuesday, the bill had passed in the state Assembly, 93-50, and in the Senate, 47-13.

State Assemblywoman Michelle Schimel (D-Great Neck) voted against the bill when it was presented to the Legislature on the final day of the session last month, while state Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola) voted in favor of it.

“I voted no on this bill and I stand by the governor’s veto of this legislation that imposes an unfunded mandate and fiscal burden on school districts,” Schimel said. “I also voted no because I received strong opposition from special education schools and (state supported) 4,201 schools in my district as well as the New York State School Boards Association.”

Martins’ spokesman Joe Rizza defended the bill’s initial intent on Wednesday.

“The purpose of the bill was to help provide placement for students with special needs so that each individual student is placed in the best possible program for that student, but the senator respects the governor’s decision,” Rizza said.

Attempts to reach Mineola School District Superintendent Michael Nagler for comment on this story were unavailing.

Reach reporter John Santa by e-mail at jsanta@theislandnow.com or by phone at 516.307.1045 x203. Also follow us on Twitter @theislandnow1 and Facebook at facebook.com/theislandnow.

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