LI school budgets: more than 90% pass

Amityville residents cast their vote on school budgets

Amityville residents cast their vote on school budgets at North East Elementary School. (May 15, 2012) (Credit: Alejandra Villa)

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Nearly 93 percent of Long Island school budgets passed Tuesday -- vindication for the great majority of district officials who generally held tax increases to their lowest levels in more than 15 years.

The 92.7 percent passing rate, while slightly lower than last year's 96 percent, still was one of the best showings since all districts began voting on the same day in 1996.

Failure rates were running higher in districts that attempted to override the state's new tax-cap limit and were required to obtain "supermajorities" of at least 60 percent.

With all 124 districts reporting, 115 won budget approval and nine lost. Defeats were recorded in Center Moriches, Comsewogue, East Islip, Elmont, Floral Park-Bellerose, Mount Sinai, Oysterponds, Three Village and Tuckahoe.

In Middle Country, which successfully overrode the state's cap, the vote was 3,368 to 2,169, or 60.8 percent. That normally would count as a substantial win, but it's a squeaker under the state's new 60 percent rule.

The district's approved $218.1 million budget will raise taxes 4.37 percent, above its 3.03 percent cap.

"We're so excited about it," said Roberta Gerold, Middle Country's superintendent. "Even in tough times, our community comes out and does what needs to be done to support the kids."

Seventeen districts in Nassau and Suffolk had sought to override the state's tax-capped limits. Those attempts failed in seven districts -- Center Moriches, Comsewogue, East Islip, Elmont, Floral Park-Bellerose, Mount Sinai and Three Village. Officials there now have one more chance to win approval, through a revote, before current tax levels are frozen in place for the coming 2012-13 school year.

"We sort of got blown away," said Joseph McHeffey, who is Center Moriches' school board president. "We asked the people to tell us what they wanted, and they let us know." The district's $39.4 million budget, which would have boosted taxes 4.56 percent, went down 719 to 1,145.

McHeffey added that his board would meet Wednesday night to discuss what to do next. One option, he said, would be to curb spending and taxation by reducing full-day kindergarten sessions to half-day.

Under the state's new restrictions, the Island's 124 school systems proposed tax hikes that averaged just 2.6 percent -- the lowest regional increase since all districts began same-day voting 16 years ago.

The push for limiting higher taxes was uppermost in the minds of many voters as they darted through spring showers to cast ballots.

"Come up with a cap and they still want more money," said Stella Gnutzman, a retired county data processor who showed up at the East Islip district's Ruth C. Kinney Elementary School to vote against the district's proposed $107.6 million budget. "It's ridiculous. People are losing their jobs in this economy."

East Islip's budget, which would have raised taxes 5.94 percent, was rejected 2,545 to 3,072.

In the sprawling Middle Country district, the Island's third largest, many voters said they wanted to avoid drastic cuts, such as cutting full-day kindergarten sessions to half-day. Mary Hartner, who has three grown children, all district graduates, said she supported the budget. Hartner recalled a previous period of tight spending when the district cut elementary gym classes and children had to exercise next to their desks.

"That was a disaster," Hartner said. "So we've been on austerity before and the kids suffer."

The new cap rules take effect for the first time in the coming school year. As in the past, any districts that failed to win voter approval Tuesday will get a second chance next month.

In East Islip, a local taxpayer group has campaigned heavily for two candidates, incumbent Louis Raffone and Philip Montouri Sr., who ran unsuccessfully two years ago. Both won.

In nearby Bayport-Blue Point, a team of three challengers -- Rebecca Campbell, John Lynch and William Milligan -- waged a highly visible campaign with posted signs. The challengers, who promised to scrutinize employee contracts to make sure the district can afford them under the new tax caps, all won. Campbell is an attorney; Lynch, a retired auditor, and Milligan, a systems architect.

Among district voters favoring the challenger slate was Amy Bachek, 42, a registered nurse with two children in the district. "I voted for the new team because I think we need some new ideas here," she said.

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