DOE: Lowest proposed school tax hikes in 15 years

Babylon Junior/Senior High School research science teacher Claire

Babylon Junior/Senior High School research science teacher Claire Birone works with her students on a science research project the class is working on in collaboration Brookhaven National Laboratory. (April 26, 2012) (Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa)

Efforts to curb local property taxes are having a dramatic effect on Long Island, with state figures released Thursday showing the lowest proposed school district tax hikes in more than 15 years.

School tax levies would rise an average 2.6 percent islandwide during the 2012-13 school year, according to district figures released by the state Department of Education. The increase is the lowest since all districts began holding same-day budget votes in 1996.

School spending on the Island would rise an average 2.29 percent, up slightly from last year's 2.17 percent, but still modest compared with most annual increases since 1996. Both spending and tax figures remain below the inflation rate.

School taxes account for more than 60 percent of all local property taxes statewide. Nassau and Suffolk rank among the nation's most highly taxed counties, with total property-tax revenues projected for next year at more than $7.9 billion.

"Taxpayers wanted relief. We gave them relief by passing the cap," said state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), chairman of the Senate Education Committee. "Schools needed relief. We gave them relief by raising state aid. The overwhelming majority of districts are living within the cap, and I think that demonstrates their concern for taxpayers."

Matthew Wing, a spokesman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who pushed hard for the new state law that imposes tax-levy limits on districts, said, "For too long, New York homeowners and businesses have been driven from the state by the growing tax burden. But now that the tax cap is in place, we are protecting taxpayers and making our state more attractive for business."

Voters in the Island's 124 public school districts will go to the polls May 15 to decide school budgets, races for board trustees and propositions.

The drive to lessen tax increases showed up across New York's 60 counties: Statewide, school taxes are projected to rise 2.37 percent, according to preliminary figures compiled by the New York State Association of School Business Officials. Statewide spending would increase 1.7 percent, the business group estimated.

Fiscal experts said schools' proposals for lower tax growth were fueled both by the imposition of the new cap and extra state financial aid to districts next year averaging 4 percent. The measures were negotiated by Cuomo and state lawmakers with strong bipartisan support.

Local school officials who have trimmed next year's payrolls to remain within the state's cap expressed mixed feelings about the financial outlook. Some districts have saved money and student services by negotiating lower pay scales with employee unions; other districts and their unions have remained at loggerheads.

Some school leaders warned they eventually will be forced to cut programs ranging from sports to full-day kindergarten, unless the state reduces its costly spending requirements, known as mandates.

"We're all glad to see that the property levies have been kept down," said Alan Groveman, the Connetquot schools chief and president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association. "We remain concerned that, without serious mandate relief, it will not be possible to continue this and provide the level of programming we do now."

Connetquot projects a 2 percent tax increase next year, slightly less than the district's 2.14 percent tax-levy cap. To curb costs, the district is cutting jobs of teachers and other staff, with a three-year loss of at least 35 positions.

Taxpayer advocate Fred Gorman, of Nesconset, described the latest tax projections as a break for homeowners.

"School districts and unions have both realized that they're going to have to readjust their thinking as [it] affects how they spend other people's money," said Gorman, an organizer of Long Islanders for Educational Reform, a regional group.

The state's basic cap on annual tax hikes is 2 percent. However, a variety of legal exemptions means, in effect, that each district has its own individual cap. For example, the Babylon school district projects a tax hike of 1.39 percent, the same as its cap, while Plainedge projects an increase of 3.91 percent, also the same as its cap.

The great majority of school districts, on the Island and statewide, have announced they'll keep within their caps next year. However, at least 16 districts on Long Island -- most in Suffolk County -- have said they will attempt cap overrides during the May 15 budget votes, when they will seek the 60 percent "supermajorities" required to exceed the state limits.

Any successes by those districts would not affect the Island's average 2.6 percent tax increase, because override proposals already have been factored into that calculation.

A total of 49 districts statewide propose to exceed their caps, according to the state school business officials group. The state has nearly 700 districts in all.

Leaders of a state teachers union projected at least 5,300 layoffs statewide next year. Those leaders said that next year's school-aid increase won't entirely compensate for aid freezes and cuts imposed in past years.

Richard Iannuzzi, a former Central Islip teacher who now heads New York State United Teachers, a federation of more than 1,200 local unions, characterized the cap as an undemocratic measure that "allows 40 percent of the community to dictate to the majority how local schools are funded."

Proposed increases

Average increases in school tax levies under districts' proposed 2012-13 budgets

2.39%: Nassau

2.84%: Suffolk

2.37%: Statewide

Average increases in school spending

2.29%: Long Island

1.98%: Nassau

2.57%: Suffolk

1.7%: Statewide

Sources: State Department of Education, New York State Association of School Business Officials

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