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Aubertine touts Cuomo’s budget

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MASSENA - When asked if Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo would like to see schools merging with each other, Agriculture Commissioner Darrel J. Aubertine said he doesn’t necessarily think that’s the case.

“That’s a local decision,” Mr. Aubertine said during a visit to the Daily Courier-Observer office Tuesday to promote the governor’s budget.

Mr. Aubertine said the school funding picture is a result of a tough fiscal climate facing the state and not a desire to see schools merge or close their doors.

“There may be a different dynamic here than there is maybe in other parts of the state, but at the same time the governor did propose a 4.4 percent raise in education aid,” Mr. Aubertine said. “The governor has been pretty clear that the state isn’t an endless pot either. The reality is the well is only so deep and you’re pretty close to the bottom of it.”

Mr. Aubertine did note that the budget includes an initiative to reward high performing teachers across the state known as the “Master Teacher Initiative.” Another of the governor’s initiative’s, although not addressed in this year’s budget, is the possible expansion of the school day.

“As the end of the day it’s all about being competitive on the world stage,” he said. “There’s going to be a culture change and a change in priorities. In an effort to that and identify the top teachers, the governor has put in for the Master Teacher Initiative.

Mr. Aubertine explained that program would identify the top teachers in the state and then pay them an additional $15,000 more per year for “four or five years.”

Another portion of the governor’s budget, which has drawn the ire of some finance experts, is his pension stabilization program, a program that Mr. Aubertine admits may not be right for everyone.

“It varies from community to community,” he said. “What works in Massena may not work in Ogdensburg.”

Mr. Aubertine said the program is nothing more than an option to that could potentially help school districts or municipalities in need of immediate savings.

“It’s not a mandate, it’s optional,” he said, adding the majority of savings associated with the new Tier 6 pension level won’t be realized for 20 years, when many governing bodies could use those savings now.

“Some people call it a gimmick, but the fact is it levels out what you’re going to pay,” he said. “I think that’s something every municipality and school district should take a look at to see how it impacts them.”

Mr. Aubertine also said it’s his understanding the pension stabilization plan includes a one-time opt out, allowing school districts or municipalities the chance to leave the program, if, down the road, they realize the program is no longer right for them.

“I advocate you take a good hard look at it before you decide it’s not for you,” he said.

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