Long Island schools are calling for substantially larger tax hikes next year to make up for potential losses in state aid, while holding the line on spending through teacher layoffs and cuts in student services.
Proposed school budgets across the Island would rise an average of 2.36 percent next year, close to last year's record low, according to state figures released Tuesday. However, tax levies would jump 3.41 percent - significantly higher than last year's 2.72 percent and well above the current inflation rate. The average proposed tax levy increase statewide is 3.21 percent. Tax levies are the amount of revenue raised in each school district through property taxes.
"It's been a very difficult time, and it's not helped by the divisiveness we've seen in the State Legislature," said Wendell Chu, superintendent of East Islip schools and president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association.
For next year, East Islip proposes a $100.8-million budget that would raise spending 1.64 percent and the tax levy 2.66 percent. To keep spending low, the district is cutting at least 10 teaching jobs - a prospect that prompted dozens of students to protest at a recent board meeting.
Across the Island and state, a weakened economy is producing multiple challenges for schools preparing for May 18 votes on $10.5 billion in school spending. The state did not report figures for Farmingdale, Island Park and four East End districts.
Gov. David A. Paterson has called for cutting the Island's school aid by $172.6 million next year to help close a state fiscal deficit. Legislators, meanwhile, are nearly a month past the state's deadline to either accept Paterson's plan or approve their own aid package.
As a result, districts are cutting programs, including music and intramural sports, while hoping for an infusion of state or federal aid to help curb taxes.
Adding to pressures are frustrations of taxpayers worried about personal finances and weary of government bailouts of institutions. Those frustrations boiled over last week in New Jersey, where voters rejected 315 local school budgets out of 537.
On the Island, many voters are being asked to weigh steep budget requests. West Hempstead's proposed $54.5 million budget would boost expenses 3.69 percent and taxes 9.4 percent. William Floyd's $200 million plan would raise spending 2.75 percent and taxes 8.53 percent. Wyandanch's $57 million budget would hike spending 3.4 percent and taxes 13.94 percent.
In some cases, higher spending reflects parents' demands for restored services. Levittown is proposing a $193.5 million budget with a 6.12 percent spending increase and a 3.81 tax increase. A separate proposition to restore bus rides for hundreds of elementary students who lost transportation this year would add $856,000 to the budget.
Among parents who petitioned for restoration of bus rides is Colleen Napoli, a Levittown mother of five. Currently, Napoli says she must race from her teaching job in another district to pick up her children every afternoon, and the strain is beginning to show.
"It comes down to $50 per household to restore the buses," she said. "Now imagine the costs per household for the parents who have to find somebody to drive their children to school, or who have to go to work later or leave work earlier."
Not everyone sympathizes. Arnold Johnson, a retired engineer and taxpayer activist in the Levittown district, voices outrage over school spending that continues to outstrip inflation, even in hard economic times.
"This system is just so dysfunctional, it's wasting money," Johnson said. "And we're going to put a stop to it."
In East Islip, many high school students say they're tired of hearing adults wrangling over spending. Teens are upset over the potential loss next year of band and orchestra directors.
Hundreds of students have petitioned for more state financial aid and an end to cutbacks.
"We're growing . . . [discontented] with the adults handling everything," said one student leader, Chris Marchese, 17, a junior. "All they do is scream and point fingers. Clearly, that doesn't work."