Long Island voters head for school polls Tuesday armed with unprecedented leverage -- a new state cap law that would automatically freeze taxes in any districts that ultimately fail to win budget approval.
Under the state's new restrictions, the Island's 124 school systems are proposing tax hikes averaging just 2.6 percent. That's the lowest regional increase since all districts began same-day voting in 1996.
Many school leaders and others predicted easy wins for budgets, at least in the 107 districts that are staying within their tax-levy limits. But those leaders noted that, in all but the wealthiest districts, modest taxes often come at the cost of fewer teachers, larger classes, shorter school schedules and fewer student services.
"While this is going to be extremely difficult in the long run," said Alan Groveman, the Connetquot schools chief and president of the Suffolk County Association of School Superintendents, "I think we're going to have a very positive outcome on Tuesday."
Connetquot's $169.7-million budget calls for a 2.95 percent spending increase and a 2 percent tax increase, a bit below its 2.14 percent cap.
Elsewhere, a few districts have been hit with last-minute leafleting and robo-calls urging residents to vote "no." One of those districts is Seaford, where parents already were forced to raise money to save middle-school sports after a failed budget last spring.
Seaford's superintendent, Brian Conboy, said he's especially troubled by calls to homes in his district because "these people, who are anonymous, can't be held accountable for what they put out."
Seaford's $57.7-million budget would raise spending 5.41 percent and taxes 2.5 percent, which the district says is within its cap. To curb taxes, the district plans once again next year to fund only a partial middle-school sports schedule.
Michael Dawidziak, a Bohemia-based political consultant, observed that school board races often exercise more long-term influence over spending than budget votes, because boards set the terms of contracts with employee unions -- districts' single biggest cost factor.
While Dawidziak agreed that most proposed school budgets should pass Tuesday, he noted that public frustration over a sagging economy makes the outcome less certain than in many years. Any district where the budget is rejected will get a second chance at passage.
"There does have to be a breaking point," he said.