All of Long Island’s 124 public school districts intend to stay within their property-tax caps for the 2017-18 school year, the first time that would happen since cap limits took effect in 2012-13, according to preliminary figures released by the state comptroller’s office.
Although districts planned no attempts to override caps, they expect to boost tax levies by 1.84 percent, or about $155 million, across the two-county region for the next school year — more than double this year’s increase — to help finance bigger budgets. By comparison, the percentage-point increase projected at this time last year was 0.73 percent.
Total school taxation in Nassau and Suffolk counties would rise to $8.56 billion for 2017-18, the comptroller’s figures show.
The school systems’ tax plans submitted to the comptroller’s office serve as alerts for homeowners and other taxpayers, and are required by the cap law. Tax levies are total dollars collected for schools, towns and other local governments through local property taxation; school taxes account for more than 65 percent of Long Island homeowners’ overall tax bills.
Education leaders cautioned that it is early in the annual budget cycle and that districts could change their minds about attempts to override the tax-cap limit — especially if proposed cuts in federal aid to states and localities have an impact. This year’s budget votes are scheduled May 16, climaxing a season already punctuated by disputes over teachers’ salaries in Manhasset and an upcoming special referendum vote in East Islip.
Under the cap law, the comptroller’s office each year sets a statewide baseline cap of either 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is lower. The baseline is used in calculating individual district tax caps, which vary widely depending upon exemptions allowed under the law, such as voter-approved school construction and renovation, debt service and lease payments.
Districts can pierce their local cap only by mustering a voter majority of at least 60 percent. Districts that try and fail an override in two consecutive votes face the penalty of a yearlong tax freeze. The tiny Tuckahoe system in Southampton Town last spring became the first ever in the region hit by such a freeze, after losing an initial vote in May and a June revote.
“The tax cap is here. That’s the reality,” said Lorraine Deller, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association. “The penalty is so severe, only under the most desperate circumstances would a district attempt to use that option.”
The New York State Association of School Business Officials, a research and advocacy group based in Albany, announced this month that only 15 districts statewide have proposed to override their caps.
The number was the lowest on record, and Long Island was the only region in the state with no override efforts pending, the association said.
By contrast, five school systems on the Island, all in Suffolk County, announced plans at this time last year to seek cap overrides, and four additional districts later did so. Seven of those override attempts succeeded; two — Tuckahoe and Elwood — failed. The Elwood system then lowered the proposed budget increase to within its cap limit, and the revised spending plan passed in the revote.
The state’s cap for the coming school year will be looser than it is now, because it is pegged to a higher inflation rate. In addition, districts got a financial break in February, when the New York State Teachers Retirement System, with more than 427,000 professional school workers enrolled statewide, announced that the amounts of money paid into the system by districts would be lowered during 2017-18 for the third consecutive year.
“That affects the biggest number of employees in a school district, so that has to have an impact,” said Joseph Dragone, assistant superintendent for business and administration in Roslyn, in reference to factors allowing districts to keep within cap limits.
Dragone, who serves on a government relations committee for the state business officials’ group, added that districts face higher costs in some other areas — notably, health insurance.
Next year’s cap, for the fourth consecutive year, is pegged to the inflation rate. The baseline cap for the 2017-18 school year is 1.26 percent, using an inflation factor from the 2016 calendar year. The 2016-17 cap of 0.12 percent was the lowest since the cap law took effect, because of unusually low inflation in 2015.
Since the state first imposed caps, annual increases in school taxes on the Island have consistently run below the 6 percent to 9 percent growth figures that were common 10 to 15 years ago.
Projected tax hikes for next year range from increases of more than 5 percent in Bridgehampton and Tuckahoe, to a reduction of more than 15 percent in Valley Stream District 30. That system’s reduced levy reflects its expectation of receiving large payments in lieu of taxes, or PILOTs, mostly for the tax-exempt Green Acres shopping mall.
The annual report from the comptroller’s office is on district tax levies. Those figures differ from tax rates on individual homes, which vary depending upon whether homeowners successfully challenge their assessments by filing grievances.
Tax increases projected in March tend to drop later in the budget cycle, as districts learn how much financial aid they will get from the state. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislators are required to approve an aid package as part of the state’s budget by April 1. Districts then will finalize their proposed budgets and tax levies.
The possibility of cap overrides remains a subject discussed at some local school board meetings.
At a March 8 meeting in the South Country district, Superintendent Joseph Giani asked board trustees whether they wanted to stay within the district’s projected 2.04 percent cap. If not, he said, the board would have to hold its next meeting in a school auditorium, rather than its own conference room, in order to accommodate an expected crowd.
“Some members of the community are going to be upset by that,” the superintendent said.
South Country faces a financial squeeze, in part because of costs of hiring more teachers and paying raises that outpace inflation. Data flashed on a screen at the meeting showed that total costs of teacher salaries would top $26.2 million next year, up 3.87 percent. The district enrolls about 4,500 students in the Bellport area.
The board president, Carol Malin, agreed with Giani that an override attempt might be inadvisable. “It’s a very big gamble,” she said.
Salary issues also have emerged in Manhasset.
A local taxpayer group, Manhasset Proponents for School Accountability, or MPSA, sent out an email blast in February criticizing local news coverage of the district’s recent contract settlement with its teachers union. The settlement was described as a 2.5 percent raise, spread over four years.
Teacher salaries in the district ranged last year from $62,122 for a beginning teacher with a bachelor’s degree to $149,450 for a teacher with 30 years’ experience and a doctorate.
Laurann Pandelakis, a Manhasset resident active in the taxpayer group, said in a phone interview that the description of the contract agreement was misleading, because it did not mention that many teachers also are eligible for annual “step” increases for longevity built into the contract that can provide as much as 13 percent in additional pay over four years.
“It really is a matter of transparency,” said Pandelakis, a retired New York City school administrator. “If they are raising salaries by about 15 percent over four years, then the taxpayers have a right to know the whole truth.”
Manhasset’s superintendent, Charles Cardillo, responded that the actual cost increase over four years was closer to 10 percent — a figure also cited by a state union group. Cardillo also noted that the district’s website provided a full teacher salary schedule and that the website mentioned step increases as part of the contract settlement.
Cardillo defended the district’s approach as “transparent and forthright.” He added that teachers over the years “have been very willing to make concessions in order to allow the district to work through some challenging economic times.”
Teacher raises statewide are averaging about 2.5 percent annually, according to Carl Korn, a spokesman for New York State United Teachers, a statewide union umbrella group. Korn, asked if districts could afford such increases while operating within caps that are beneath that percentage, replied that the issue is best left to localities.
“Locally elected school boards and superintendents are in the best position to make that determination,” Korn said. “What does the district have in reserves? Are they expecting retirements?”
The New York State Educational Conference Board, an Albany-based coalition of groups including teacher unions, school boards and others, estimated a 2.75 percent rise in employees’ salaries next year. The estimate was based on national forecasts, adjusted for savings resulting from staff retirements.
In East Islip, a district decision to hold a special referendum on April 6, less than six weeks before the regular budget vote, has some taxpayers fuming. Questions about whether one proposition on the referendum ballot might raise taxes have heightened tensions.
The referendum seeks voter approval of three propositions — two that authorize use of surplus and reserve funds, and another seeking authorization for a $15.4 million contract covering capital improvements and energy conservation.
District officials said that they are calling for a referendum in April so they can get started with the conservation project as soon as possible.
Superintendent John Dolan, in a statement to Newsday, said he did not expect the contract to result in a tax increase because the project’s cost should be met by a combination of state financial aid and savings in energy costs. However, Dolan’s statement appeared to leave open the possibility of a small tax increase starting in 2018-19 that “equates to $50 per year for the average homeowner.”
A recent bulletin issued by the district stated flatly that the three propositions carry “NO tax impact for our community.” Dolan has not responded to Newsday’s request to explain the apparent contradiction.
Andrea Vecchio, a longtime activist in East Islip TaxPac, a local taxpayer group, appeared at a board meeting March 9 to underscore her opposition to the referendum.
“They think they can get it passed, if they can put it up separate and apart from the regular budget and the regular tax levy,” Vecchio said in a phone interview. “It’s stealthy.”
With Scott Eidler