After-School Gymnastics

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With an eye to shoring up his credentials as a fiscal conservative, Governor George Pataki has included plenty of social service cuts in his proposed budget. Just about the only increase is a new $10 million line for after-school programs dubbed “Advantage Schools.” But the legislature won’t have it–even though the governor’s plan is almost identical to a program it had passed (and the governor killed) in 1998.

Last year, the legislature presented Pataki with its own $10 million budget for after-school programs. The funding would go to community-based groups to set up academic, athletic and arts programs in neighborhood schools running from 3 to 6 p.m., the time when statistics show youth are most likely to get into trouble. The plan was written with an eye to fulfilling parameters that would bring in an additional $3.3 million for after-school programs–courtesy of a matching grant from uber-funder George Soros.

But Pataki vetoed the plan in the trimming spree that marked the end of last year’s budget process. This year, he has resurrected it as part of his own budget.

Instead of being thrilled, legislators are miffed. The Senate has suggested the program’s budget be brought down to less than $2 million, and the Assembly has officially taken a “no position” position on the matter. The legislature is rebelling because Pataki introduced one very important adjustment in the proposal. Under his plan, the funds will go where he can control them: through the State Office of Children and Family Services. The plan from the legislature last year was written to move the money through the State Education Department, run by the relatively independent state Board of Regents. For state Dems, that’s all the difference in the world.

“OCFS is a governor-controlled agency. The commissioner would have sole discretion over how grants are awarded to which schools, as opposed to the state Education Department, over which he has no control,” says Steve Sanders, chair of the Assembly Education Committee. “It makes no sense to bifurcate a system and introduce another agency.”

And behind these politics, there are more politics. Two years ago, the Assembly agreed to support the governor’s upstate property tax cuts in exchange for a commitment on lowering class size and funding pre-kindergarten programs. But Pataki’s budget this year falls about $80 million shy of that pledge. Even worse, it allows the money to be used for whatever the districts want, essentially defunding the class-size cuts and preschool plans. “The Democrats are really ticked that Pataki isn’t going to be expanding pre-K programs,” notes one state budget observer.

Sanders calls these issues “a very significant part of the budget impasse right now.” However, he does add that the Assembly is willing to cooperate with the governor and the Senate when it comes to freeing up the $10 million for after-school activities. “The worst result is not having the programs at all,” he says. ” That’s not something I’m anxious to see repeated.”