LI school budgets call for staff cuts

A file photo of Brentwood High School. A file photo of Brentwood High School. Photo Credit: Ed Betz, 2010

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Long Island's public schools plan to shed more than 1,100 jobs in the coming school year -- the second straight with substantial cuts in district payrolls -- as they enter the uncharted territory of a state cap limiting increases in property taxes.

Newsday's annual school-budget survey finds that, in dozens of districts, reductions in teachers and other staff will be accompanied by slightly larger classes, shorter school schedules or fewer courses in music, art and other electives. North Bellmore and West Islip intend to save more money by closing schools.

On Tuesday, residents of the Island's 124 school districts will vote on budgets totaling $11.15 billion and in board races involving 375 candidates. Last year, fewer than 16 percent of registered voters in Nassau and Suffolk counties went to the polls, and only five districts' budgets were rejected.

Overall, financial problems facing schools now appear less dire than at this time last year, when districts projected as many as 2,150 job losses. Current tighter revenue is offset, to a degree, by declining enrollments, lower teacher raises and increased state aid.

Some educators, however, looking at the lengths districts went to this year to deal with the new limits on property-tax increases, assert the caps will gradually drain cash reserves. Districts, they say, may be pushed toward a fiscal "threshold" that will force cancellation of such services as full-day kindergartens.

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Districts that seek to exceed their tax-levy limit must win majorities of 60 percent or more. Seventeen Long Island districts -- 15 in Suffolk, which has less taxable wealth per pupil than Nassau -- will attempt such overrides Tuesday.

"By year five of the cap, I think a lot more districts are going to be crossing that threshold unless they can get 60 percent votes," said Herb Brown, Oceanside's school chief and president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents. "I think that will change the nature of education as we know it."

Tax-cap supporters contend districts must develop more realistic spending habits. School budgets account for more than 60 percent of all property taxes in Nassau and Suffolk, and both counties rank among the nation's most highly taxed.

The new limits had a marked impact on district's proposed spending plans: Islandwide, school tax levies would rise an average 2.6 percent in the 2012-13 school year, the lowest such increase since all districts began holding same-day budget votes in 1996.

"We are in a very fragile economy," said Desmond Ryan, executive director of the Association for a Better Long Island, a group representing commercial developers who support the cap. "If schools are to avoid incurring public anger, they are going to have to prove that they can continue to deliver quality education while spending less."

Newsday's survey of 124 districts finds projected job losses of 1,199 employees, including 713 teachers -- about 2 percent of the Island's instructional workforce. Nearly two-thirds of planned cuts are in Suffolk.

Brentwood, the Island's largest district and one of its poorest, projects the largest number of job losses -- as many as 73 teachers. In addition, the district tentatively plans to reduce elementary art and music programs and high-school business courses, and to shorten its middle-school sports schedule.

As in other districts, Brentwood officials said many planned cuts may be avoided if employees agree to lower compensation. Many local teacher unions already have taken that step. Regional union representatives said newly negotiated raises average 1 to 1.5 percent a year, compared with 3 or 3.5 percent a few years ago. Representatives add that annual "step" increases built into pay schedules are being canceled or postponed in many cases.

"I think teachers understand that it makes sense for the community, to try and help the kids," said John Heslin, president of Sachem's teacher union. His group gave up part of a 2.5 percent raise for 2012-13, taking 1 percent instead.

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Newsday's survey found two dozen districts where contracts previously negotiated will provide teachers with raises of more than 2 percent. Even in districts where raises are lower, growing numbers of parents and other residents say increases seem unwarranted.

In the Middle Country district, teachers who took a pay freeze this year will get 1 percent raises next year along with delayed step increases averaging 2 percent. Meanwhile, the district is seeking a 4.37 percent tax hike that would override its cap, warning that failure to approve could result in reduction of kindergarten from full- to half-day sessions.

Janine DeSantis, who has a child enrolled in the district, appeared at a recent board meeting to criticize provisions in teacher and management contracts. "When they're taking programs away from our children, I have a problem with that," DeSantis said.

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