Districts to trim budgets ahead of revote
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Six of seven Long Island school districts that tried but failed to exceed new tax caps are weighing possible cuts in student services as they toe the state's line in seeking voter approval of smaller tax increases for the 2012-13 school year.
School officials in the six districts, which did not muster the 60 percent supermajority required to override tax-cap limits, confirmed they will keep within caps for the revote, which takes place June 19 in districts statewide. Details of any trims needed to meet lower spending plans -- reduction of full-day kindergarten to half-day is often mentioned -- will be released over the next week, they said.
"The community has spoken, and we have to accede to their wishes," said Anthony Bonasera, superintendent of Mount Sinai schools, who plans to redraft the district's budget to meet the 2.13 percent tax-levy limit set by a complex state formula.
In voting on May 15, Mount Sinai's $55.3 million budget, which carried a 4.76 percent tax hike, won 1,263 "yes" votes and 1,147 "no" votes. That 52.4 percent majority fell well short of the 60 percent required to override the state's cap.
Budget defeats in the seven districts were the exception to the rule when voters approved budgets in 115 of 124 Long Island districts -- a result that tax-cap backers heralded as proving the caps' effectiveness in forcing fiscal discipline. Overrides were successful in 10 districts where budgets exceeded tax limits; five of those were small East End systems.
What happens next also could break new ground: Any district losing votes twice in a row faces an automatic tax freeze for the coming school year.
Opposition to possible cutsLast week, anxious parents and educators began contacting the districts involved, voicing opposition to potential losses of valued academic and extracurricular programs.
More than 500 people turned out at a Three Village district budget meeting, applauding speakers who pleaded for preservation of full-day kindergarten classes, college-level Advanced Placement courses and other services. Some contended that Three Village's reputation as a high-achieving system is at stake.
"As a community, we may have lost something of our heart," said Claudine Pepe, 42, a local parent who is a school principal in another district and whose son is to enter kindergarten in the fall.
In the Center Moriches district, which serves growing communities in eastern Brookhaven Town, many parents fear losses of varsity sports teams and advanced high-school courses that their high school has added in recent years.
In addition to Center Moriches, Mount Sinai and Three Village, other districts indicating they will bring budgets in line with the new tax-cap limit are Comsewogue, East Islip and Floral Park-Bellerose. Two others, Oysterponds and Tuckahoe, did not exceed their caps but failed to pass budgets by simple majorities and will try again on June 19.
Only Elmont, a 3,700-student elementary district in western Nassau County, has chosen to attempt a second override vote on June 19. The district's proposed $78.5 million budget would raise spending 2.76 percent and taxes 6.87 percent -- higher than its 1.89 percent cap.
In most of the districts where overrides failed, school officials said they understood from the outset that proposing substantially higher taxes would be controversial. But they said they wanted to give voters -- parents, especially -- a chance to preserve student services.
With those spending plans rejected at the polls, those officials and their supporters have concluded that any further override attempts probably would fail as well and put schools at greater financial risk.
"I think people are just nervous about the cost of living," said Gina Biamonte, 45, president of Center Moriches' PTA district council. "They don't want programs cut, but they also don't want to lose their homes."
Center Moriches' $39.4 million budget, which would have boosted taxes 4.56 percent, lost 1,145 "no" votes to 719 "yes" votes. The school board plans to adopt a revised budget on June 6 that will hold taxes at or below the district's 2.95 percent cap.
'No' vote could 'wreck' districtAnxiety also is running high in Three Village schools, attended by many sons and daughters of professors at nearby Stony Brook University. The district's $178.6 million budget, with a 4.48 percent tax increase, won a 56.7 percent majority -- short of the override requirement.
Three Village officials, who are revising their budget to keep within the district's 2.99 percent tax cap, have said that details won't be ready for release until a board meeting scheduled for 8 Tuesday. Extra reserve funds might be used to lessen the need for cuts in services, they said.
However, in a flier issued before the May 15 vote, the district outlined reductions that could be forced by a capped 2.99 percent increase: losses of up to 40 staff positions, added to 85 slots trimmed in the original budget; reduction of full-day kindergarten sessions to half-day; and trimming the nine-period high school daily schedule to eight periods. A second "no" vote, the flier added, could cost another 75 staff positions, along with all kindergarten classes and sports.
John Diviney, who is Three Village's school board president, warned again at last week's hearing that another budget rejection "could wreck the Three Village school district."
Fiscal pressures have prompted some local school officials, along with leaders of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers union, to assert that the state's new 60 percent rule for cap overrides is "undemocratic."
Taxpayer representatives responded that the truly undemocratic process is the state's allowing second votes on budgets that fail in initial balloting. Those representatives added that so-called "supermajorities" are required in many other instances -- ranging from congressional votes on constitutional amendments to votes by local homeowners' associations on road-paving projects.
Taxpayer groups also pointed to results of the May 15 vote, when nearly 93 percent of all Long Island districts won approval of budgets that carried the lowest average tax increases in more than 15 years.
"All over the state, the cap has been enormously popular," said Andrea Vecchio, a longtime activist with an East Islip taxpayer group known as TaxPac. "Democracy worked in this instance."