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FILE - In this Feb. 23, 2021, file photo, a crane is used to lift a vehicle following a rollover accident involving golfer Tiger Woods, in the Rancho Palos Verdes suburb of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles County sheriff plans to announce Wednesday, April 7, 2021, what caused Woods to crash an SUV in Southern California earlier in the year, seriously injuring himself in the wreck. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu, File)

Cuomo aide says he slammed door shut before groping her

Editor’s note: This report contains graphic descriptions of sexual groping.

ALBANY — An aide who accused Gov. Andrew Cuomo of groping her at his official residence told a newspaper in her first public interview it was a frightening physical encounter in which the Democrat slammed a door and said “I don’t care” when she warned someone might see what he was doing.

“It was almost like I felt like a piece of garbage to him. I felt degraded,” she said.

The interview published by the Times Union of Albany on Wednesday adds new details to the most serious accusation against Cuomo, a Democrat who is being investigated after a series of women accused him of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior.

The woman, who still works in the governor’s office, spoke to the newspaper on the condition of anonymity to protect her privacy, although her identity is known within the governor’s circle.

The governor’s lawyer, Rita Glavin, said in a statement that Cuomo “has repeatedly made clear that he never made inappropriate advances or inappropriately touched anyone.”

The woman told the Times Union she had been summoned to the mansion on a weekday in November to help Cuomo with a problem with his iPhone. When she reached his office on the mansion’s second floor, she said, he rose from his desk and began groping her.

“That wasn’t just a hug,” she said. “He went for it and I kind of like was, ‘Oh, the door is right there.’ ... I was mortified that a woman who works here is going to come in and see. ... I was terrified of that happening, because that’s not who I am and that’s not what I’m here for.”

“I said to him, I said, ‘You’re going to get us in trouble,’” she recalled. “I didn’t know what else to say. … It was pretty much like ‘What are you doing?’ That’s when he slammed the door (shut). He said, ‘I don’t care.’”

He then came toward her again.

“He came right back and he pulled me close and all I remember is seeing his hand, his big hand,” the woman said.

The governor had reached under her blouse and grasped one of her breasts over her bra, the woman told the Times Union.

“I don’t remember actually saying the word ‘Stop.’ I think I said, ‘You’re crazy,’” she told the newspaper. “I do remember saying that, and that’s when he ultimately stopped. ... Me saying ‘You’re crazy’ — that was definitely not something that he wants to hear. It definitely was a hit to his ego. … And then it was almost like instantly he was done. … He turned around and walked back to his desk. He didn’t say anything. I walked myself out to the front door and nothing was said.”

A month later, the woman said, she was taking dictation for the governor at his Capitol office when he brought up what had happened at the mansion.

“Near the end of it, he looked up at me and he said, ‘You know, by the way, you know people talk in the office and you can never tell anyone about anything we talk about or, you know, anything, right?’” she said. “I said, ‘I understand.’ He said, ‘Well, you know, I could get in big trouble, you know that.’ I said, ‘I understand, governor.’ And he said, ‘OK.’”

The woman said she interpreted the governor’s comments as a threat.

“I was a liability, and he knew that,” she said.

Cuomo has brushed off widespread calls for his resignation and asked that people wait for the results of an investigation overseen by state Attorney General Letitia James, a fellow Democrat. The state Assembly is conducting a separate investigation into whether there are grounds to impeach the governor.

The new details from the interview set off a fresh round of calls for Cuomo’s removal, with Democratic state Sen. Gustavo Rivera of New York City asking his fellow lawmakers on Twitter: “how much more lurid detail do you need to say clearly that @NYGovCuomo needs to resign or be impeached imminently?”

Glavin said the attorney general’s review of this claim and others “must be thorough, fair and provide the truth.”

The woman, the mother of a young child, told the Times Union she has lost significant weight, is emotionally fragile and is concerned about her job security.

The woman believes Cuomo had been grooming her for almost two years with a pattern of inappropriate behavior that began with tight hugs and kisses on the cheek, she told the newspaper. He asked probing and inappropriate questions, saying to her one time, “Oh, if you were single, the things that I would do to you,” she said.

On New Year’s Eve 2019, she said, she was sent to the mansion to help the governor, and he suggested taking a selfie.

“I was holding up the phone. I was nervous. As the phone is up I feel him, like, not just sliding his hands, he’s like rubbing my butt cheek, but not saying anything,” she said. “That was the first blatant move.”

Several other women who worked for Cuomo have accused him of hitting on them, of subjecting them to inappropriate comments about their looks or questions about their dating lives.

The casket of New York State Trooper Joseph J. Gallagher is carried out of Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna, a suburb of Buffalo, on Wednesday. Gallagher, a former Buffalonian, died on March 26 on Long Island, more than three years after he was critically injured by a distracted driver while assisting a disabled motorist.

Moreau likely won't need eminent domain for sewer project

MOREAU — It took a formal step toward filing for eminent domain, but finally Moreau heard from National Grid.

The agency sent a letter promising to sign two easements to allow the Route 9 sewer pipe to cross the front of National Grid-owned property.

National Grid will be the last property owner to sign. Now construction is expected to begin in early May.

The town needs 70 easements to run the sewer pipe along the side of Route 9. Most owners signed quickly. A few held out until they learned that the project would use directional drilling — that meant no trenches in front of each property, which can limit access.

But for months, National Grid officials would say only that they were “reviewing” the easement request. Five other property owners also didn’t sign.

Three months ago, the Town Board held a public hearing to prepare its eminent domain case. That made it clear the board was serious, and five of the six remaining owners signed.

Just not National Grid.

Finally, on Tuesday of last week, the Town Board voted unanimously to take the next step: filing court papers at state Supreme Court.

The board had waited on that step because eminent domain court hearings take time — months, pre-pandemic, and probably longer now. In a worst-case scenario, a hearing could have set the project back another year, to wait until the start of the next construction season.

So Supervisor Todd Kusnierz was so thrilled to get National Grid’s letter that he sent out a message with an exclamation point: “National Grid letter of commitment just arrived!”

The letter says National Grid will grant the town easements at 1535-1541 Route 9 and 2-68 Butler Road.

It was the last hurdle the town needed to overcome before construction could begin.

New Castle Paving of Troy will build the sewer project over the course of the next two years for $11.08 million. The project will take 24 to 30 months to complete, but parts will be functioning in 2022.

The pump station, the force main and portions of the low-pressure main on Route 9 are expected to be working next year. Mobile home parks will also hook into the sewer, but that will require extensive work that won’t be done until 2023.

Voters narrowly approved spending up to $16 million on the project, but the Town Board made many changes to the project, including directional drilling, to reduce costs.

Even as schools reopen, many students learn remotely

Large numbers of students are not returning to the classroom even as more schools reopen for full-time, in-person learning, according to a survey released Wednesday by the Biden administration.

The findings reflect a nation that has been locked in debate over the safety of reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic. Even as national COVID-19 rates continued to ebb in February, key measures around reopening schools barely budged.

Nearly 46% of public schools offered five days a week of in-person learning to all students in February, according to the survey, but just 34% of students were learning full time in the classroom. The gap was most pronounced among older K-12 students, with just 29% of eighth graders getting five days a week of learning at school.

With the new findings, President Joe Biden came no closer to meeting his goal of having most elementary schools open five days a week in his first 100 days. School offerings were nearly identical to what was reported a month before. But among eighth grade students, there was a slight shift from fully remote to hybrid learning.

Speaking at a coronavirus briefing on Wednesday, White House COVID-19 adviser Andy Slavitt described the findings as a step forward.

“This is encouraging early data covering the month of February that shows progress toward the president’s goal to have K-8 schools open five days a week,” Slavitt said.

The findings are based on a survey of 3,500 public schools that serve fourth graders and 3,500 schools that serve eighth graders. It’s based on data from schools in 37 states that agreed to participate. This is the second round of data released from a survey started by the Biden administration to evaluate progress in reopening schools.

The data captures a month that saw building momentum in the push to reopen schools. In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared that schools could safely reopen with masks, social distancing and other precautions. Days later, Biden reframed his goal around reopening schools after critics said his previous pledge lacked ambition.

Since then, schools have continued to reopen as more teachers get vaccines and as some states loosen social distancing requirements. More recent estimates from the data service Burbio found that, as of Sunday, more than 55% of K-12 students were back in the classroom full time.

As in January, the new federal data showed dramatic disparities based on region and race. In the South, slightly more than half of all fourth graders were learning entirely at school in February, an uptick from the month before. In the same period, by contrast, the Northeast saw a decrease in the rate of students learning in the classroom five days a week, from 23% to 19%.

Overall, more than a third of students in the South and Midwest were learning entirely at school, compared with less than a quarter in the West and Northeast, according to the survey.

White students continued to be far more likely to be back in the classroom, with 52% of white fourth graders receiving full-time, in-person instruction. By contrast, less than a third of Black and Hispanic fourth graders were back at school full time, along with just 15% of Asian students.

The results do not indicate whether students are learning remotely by choice or because their schools do not offer an in-person option. The mismatch between what schools are offering and what students are getting is at least partly explained by big urban districts that have been slow to offer in-person options. But it’s clear that at least some students are opting to stay remote even after their schools reopen classrooms.

The survey’s findings around race align with previous findings from some of the nation’s largest school districts, where Black students have returned at far lower rates than their white classmates — a disparity that’s believed to come down at least partly to trust. Advocates say more must be done to convince parents that their children will be safe in school, especially Black families who have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus.

Although wide racial disparities persisted in the new round of data, the Education Department saw a glimmer of hope in a slight increase among Black students learning fully in-person. From January to February, the rate ticked up from 28% to 30%.

“Although white students continue to enroll in full-time in-person instruction at higher rates, we are beginning to see shifts toward full-time in-person learning for other groups,” said Peggy Carr, an associate commissioner at the agency’s National Center for Education Statistics.

Parents across the U.S. have been conflicted about a return to the classroom, expressing concerns about the virus but also about learning setbacks as their children learn remotely, according to a poll from The University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Worries about learning setbacks were slightly more prevalent than fears of spreading the virus at school, the poll found.

The department also reported progress in bringing more students with disabilities back to school. Among Black and white students with disabilities in the fourth grade, fewer were learning remotely in February than in January, according to the survey.

School districts to see $3 billion more in aid in state budget

School officials have experienced whiplash during the past year, as they moved from the possibility of massive cuts to being able to add staff and programs to help students recover from the pandemic, thanks to a large increase in education aid in the state budget.

Last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo was talking about a 20% cut to education aid because of shrinking state revenues. But the budget agreement has ended up increasing school funding by $3 billion to a total of $29.5 billion.

“You compare where we are now to where we were half a year ago, it’s night and day,” said Brian Fessler, director of governmental affairs for the New York State School Boards Association.

Fiscal equity

Fessler said school districts are grateful for the additional state aid and the money from the federal stimulus package.

The budget contains a $1.4 billion increase to Foundation Aid, the basic amount school districts receive based upon enrollment and their income and property wealth.

Legislators have committed to fully phase in the Foundation Aid formula over three years, according to Fessler.

“That’s something that’s been an absolute top priority for us since Foundation Aid was implemented almost a decade and a half ago,” he said.

Foundation Aid was created as part of a 2007 settlement with a group called the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which sued the state for underfunding certain schools and depriving some New York students of their right to a “sound basic education.”

The lawsuit claimed districts with a large number of minority students were disproportionately underfunded.

The Legislature promised to provide billions more in new education funding over a four-year period. But when the Great Recession hit in 2008, the state initially froze and then, through the gap elimination adjustment, reduced the amount of aid coming to schools.

Fessler said school districts will see a minimum increase of 2% in Foundation Aid. A number of districts will get a 3% increase, based on a funding formula that will benefit rural school districts.

“Every district, regardless of size, or enrollment situation faces increased costs — just like our households do every year. Inflation, even though it’s low, still exists,” Fessler said.

Federal cash

The state aid increase comes on top of the roughly $12 billion school districts received from the various federal stimulus packages.

Fessler said the federal money could help cover increased health and safety costs associated with the pandemic, including the purchase of personal protective equipment and increased transportation expenses. It will also fund programs to help students make up for lost learning because of the pandemic.

“I anticipate us seeing some extended summer school opportunities for students in much greater numbers than we would usually see in a ‘normal’ year,” he said.

Fessler said he believes districts will use funds for technology, including electronic devices “to continue to move us into the future and to better prepare us in case we’re in a situation where remote or hybrid learning continues to be necessary or beneficial going forward.”

The money could also be used for upgrades to ventilation systems.

Lowering the tax levy could also be part of the conversation school members will be having, Fessler added.

“Their job is to balance the needs of their students and their school districts against what the local community can afford,” he said.

Fessler cautioned districts to be fiscally responsible.

“Even though the stimulus funding represents a significant infusion of funding, it is one-time funding. In a few years, that money will go away,” he said.

Groups praise budget

New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta said the budget brings hope for a revival in 2021.

“The state is taking the first steps since the Great Recession to fully fund Foundation Aid for K-12 schools, which is a huge boost as districts and educators triage the pandemic-related needs of students and drill down to the underlying academic and social-emotional needs schools were grappling with before the pandemic,” he said in a news release.

In addition, he said it is good to see “economic justice” in the budget as the ultrawealthy will pay more in taxes.

However, Pallotta said some items that NYSUT sought were not included, such as a statewide early retirement incentive for employees. Also, after years of flat funding, more money is needed for public universities, colleges and hospitals.

Alliance for Quality Education, founded 21 years ago to push for equitable education resources for minority communities, praised the budget.

“Generations of parents, community leaders and students across New York State, year after year, have led the advocacy to hold New York to the promise of a sound, basic education for every child,” said Jasmine Gripper, executive director of Alliance for Quality Education, in a news release.

“Parents, educators and students put their bodies and hearts into this difficult, but necessary fight. This victory shows the power of the people, the power of never giving up, the power of ‘we,’ and it belongs to all of us.”

New York State Council of School Superintendents Executive Director Charles Dedrick said the group is pleased the budget provides a $1.4 billion increase in Foundation Aid, full funding of aid for transportation and BOCES services and allows expansion of full-day prekindergarten throughout the state.

“The budget also assures that federal stimulus funding for education will supplement and not supplant state resources, enabling districts to apply that funding to safely reopening schools, maximizing in-person instruction, and helping students overcome the effects of the pandemic’s disruptions upon their learning and personal well-being,” he said in a news release.