Long Island schools using influx of surplus state aid to restore services

Wyandanch school officials gathered at the LaFrancis Hardiman Wyandanch school officials gathered at the LaFrancis Hardiman school on Thurday, May 15, 2014, where the preschool program for the upcoming school year will be expanded from half-year to full-year. From left are assistant superintendent of schools Kenneth Rodgers, school board president Nancy Holliday, acting superintendent Mary Jones and LaFrancis Hardiman principal Delores Jenkins. Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

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Dozens of Long Island school districts are expanding student services and courses for the 2014-15 academic year with minimal impact on property taxes -- a development made possible largely by election-year cash infusions from Albany.

A Newsday survey of spending proposals by the region's 124 school systems finds growth in numbers of districts adding new offerings or restoring programs cut during the recession. Such programs range from elementary music groups to high school research classes.

Voting on districts' budgets totaling more than $11.7 billion in Nassau and Suffolk counties will take place Tuesday. Islandwide, spending is due to rise an average 2.27 percent next year while property tax collections increase an average 1.57 percent -- the lowest tax hikes in more than 40 years.

This year's budget season also has been marked by what many educators describe as unprecedented state intervention in local tax decisions.

An initiative pushed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has promised tax-rebate checks to homeowners whose districts pass budgets that stay within state-imposed tax caps, now in their third year of enforcement.

The state has earmarked $375 million for rebate checks scheduled to go out in October. Much of that money is expected to go to homeowners on the Island, where property taxes are relatively high.

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The state, moreover, allocated $125.7 million in additional direct aid for the Island's public schools next year -- a 5.63 percent hike that is the largest since the 2008 financial crash.

Local school leaders, while critical of rebates, have welcomed the extra aid. Many cautioned, however, that the cash flow may slow once the election year is past.

"This is thanks to the generosity of the legislature and the governor -- otherwise it wouldn't have happened," said Sydney Freifelder, chief financial administrator in the Amityville district, which plans to expand opportunities for students to accelerate into advanced courses.

Roberta Gerold, superintendent of Middle Country schools, noted Albany's tendency to pull back on aid outlays in nonelection years.

"We're always very cautious about what the future holds," said Gerold, president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association.

Newsday's survey, completed last week, obtained detailed responses regarding school programs and staffing from more than 100 districts that returned questionnaires.

Thirty-two districts said they plan to expand student services next year -- up from the 19 districts that gave such responses a year ago. Another 50 districts said they intend to maintain services at current levels in 2014-15, while only 21 expect to make cuts.

Huntington and Miller Place are making the most dramatic moves in 2014-15, by expanding kindergarten from half-day to full-day sessions lasting about six hours. Floral Park-Bellerose also is extending kindergarten sessions, to a little over four hours a day.

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East Islip, meanwhile, is restoring sixth-grade classes in Spanish, Italian and possibly French. Baldwin will bring back middle school sports. Manhasset is restoring fourth-grade band and orchestra, as well as the elementary ensemble and chamber chorus.

Districts also said they are looking for ways to spend more efficiently. Wyandanch plans to bring in a local university to run its preschool classes for 105 children -- a move that local officials said will allow expansion to full-day sessions.

"I think it's an absolutely fabulous decision," said one local parent, Robin Ash, 37, who recently enrolled her youngest son in the preschool program.

Ash, a warehouse security worker, said the full-day preschool will help cut her child-care costs while allowing her to work more flexible hours.

Despite signs of progress, many school administrators across the Island find themselves hard-pressed to maintain services and class sizes at desirable levels while keeping within district tax caps.

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In Westbury, officials said the number of students enrolled in many high school classes already exceeds 30 and is expected to continue rising. The district's enrollment -- which has risen in recent years -- is projected to increase by another 195 students next year.

"Space is running out, also," said Kathy Kennedy, Westbury's business administrator.

Regional education leaders pointed to such problems as evidence that the state should have directed more aid to schools rather than allocating money to homeowner rebates.

Those leaders also characterized the new rebate incentives, which are due to continue in 2015 and 2016, as unprecedented in size and scope.

"In my 36 years as a school superintendent, I've never seen a plan that mirrors this one in returning such potentially large sums of money to taxpayers in the form of rebates," said Henry Grishman, superintendent of Jericho schools.

Grishman is a former president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

National experts said states increasingly are getting involved in local taxation issues, often in response to public complaints over high property taxes.

Michael Griffith, a school finance consultant for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, said another reason for states' greater involvement is that they are investing more money in schools. "It's like the golden rule," Griffith said. "He who has the gold makes the rules."

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