Gov. David Paterson is heading into the new year taking on Albany's most powerful special interest on two fronts that will test the influence of the teachers' union and put $700 million in federal funding on the line.
Paterson is fighting a lawsuit and biting rhetoric from the New York State United Teachers union, two school administrators' groups and the state School Boards Association. They sued to keep the state from delaying 10 percent of aid payments due in December that Paterson had ordered as part of wide-ranging cost-control measures to keep the state out of fiscal crisis.
"It's almost like children who start screaming and pulling the covers over their head to make the monsters go away,'' Paterson told The Associated Press.
"Well, they can scream all they want and pull the wool over their eyes, but the public sees the monsters of the lack of cash and the monsters of unavailability of credit are here, and someone is going to have to be the adult force that comes into the room and gets rid of the monsters,'' he said. "And the only way to do that is to practice a new culture of governance called discipline financing.''
Few governors have taken on the teachers' union and its labor allies and none can say they won. The New York State United Teachers union, with more than 600,000 members, has emerged as Albany's most powerful lobbying force and one of the biggest campaign contributor to lawmakers of both parties. Its ability to get out the vote among its members and to staff telephone banks for and against candidates are major factors, especially in legislative elections.
But Paterson, who has struggled with low poll numbers and long ago lost the support of public worker unions, also plans to take on the teachers union by trying to lift the cap on the number of charter schools, which the unions and other school funding advocates oppose, to get a better shot at up to $700 million from the federal "race to the top'' program to improve public education. He said the state will need to lift the cap of 100 charter schools in January or likely lose out on the cash.
Education advocates in New York, however, say the Obama administration thinks New York will qualify for the program.
"I proved by speaking to the (U.S. education) secretary myself that qualifying and receiving funding are two completely different concepts,'' Paterson said. "I think these are ways that people are avoiding the issue because they don't like the ideology. My view? I don't have time to engage in sophistry when the state coffers are empty.
"I need $400 to $700 million which I understand could be yielded by the federal government and I will do everything necessary to achieve it,'' Paterson said. "Why are we walking away from this?''
NYSUT and other public school advocates originally opposed and now seek limits on charter schools, created more than a decade ago to compete with public schools. When a student's family chooses to transfer to a charter school, the state per pupil aid goes with the child and traditional public schools say that's devastating their funding.
Part of the reason for the lawsuit against Paterson's order to delay a big school aid payment in December is because the unions suspect Paterson won't ever give the money back, turning the delay will turn into a permanent cut.
"Whether you call it a delay or say he'll never pay, school districts need to pay their bills on time or their credit ratings drop and the cost to local taxpayers goes up and people are holding them accountable,'' said NYSUT President Richard Iannuzzi.
In that argument, he can use Paterson's words against him. The governor had sought to make sure the state paid its vendors on time because he warned the state's credit rating would be hurt, adding to the cost of borrowing. Until earlier this month, Paterson also refused to tap the state's "rainy day'' reserves because he said the fund was a last resort after a catastrophe, but Paterson now argues most schools could tap their reserves to avoid any pain from the delays.
When the head of the state Council of School Superintendents criticized Paterson's delay as a threat to students and staff, Paterson shot back. The governor's staff reported the superintendent's home district in suburban Saratoga County faces a delay of $180,000 in aid, but has reserves of $3.8 million.
Iannuzzi complained Paterson gave too little time for school districts to fully consider using reserves but Paterson maintains he has said since October that 95 percent of districts had enough reserves to cover aid cuts.
Paterson said last week that his latest projects show the delayed funds could be released in January and in his response to the lawsuit filed last week, Paterson questioned a necessary element of the legal action: That districts face irreparable harm by just a delay of aid.
Iannuzzi said the harm of even a delay is clear because many districts, particularly poorer districts, will have to borrow to meet payroll and pay bills.
"The governor is playing with the local taxpayer and school district heads and that's not right,'' Iannuzzi said.