Most LI districts propose spending or tax hikes of 3% or higher

Band and orchestra teacher Jamie Sico, center, speaks Band and orchestra teacher Jamie Sico, center, speaks to James Gambino, 10, of Eastport, about music during fourth grade orchestra lessons at Eastport Elementary School in Eastport. (May 7, 2013) Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

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More than 70 Long Island school districts are proposing hikes in either spending or taxes of at least 3 percent for next year -- a significant rise -- and many are also expanding student services.

In contrast, fewer than 30 districts boosted budgets that much this year.

Islandwide spending is projected to rise 3.22 percent for the 2013-14 school year, according to annual tax "report cards" released Thursday by the state Education Department. Tax levies -- the total revenues collected through property taxation -- are slated to increase 3.27 percent.

Increases for the current year are 2.29 percent and 2.60 percent, respectively.

State caps on taxation, now entering their second year, continue to exert a strong influence on holding down costs, despite the latest increases. No districts in Nassau or Suffolk counties are proposing double-digit hikes -- a common occurrence in years past.

The highest projected tax increases for next year are 7.49 percent in Sachem and 7 percent in Baldwin, which, along with five other districts, seek to override their caps. Overrides will require 60 percent "supermajority" votes in school elections scheduled for May 21.

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Plans to expand programs

Many districts actually are adding programs ranging from elementary music to high school elective courses for the first time in years. This is being done with the help of a 5.28 percent increase in state financial aid for the region -- the biggest since the Great Recession.

Wantagh, for example, is expanding half-day kindergarten classes to full day for about 200 youngsters.

Central Islip is restoring full-day kindergarten classes that had been reduced to half day in 2010. Elmont is bringing back summer academic and recreation programs that had been eliminated last July for between 700 and 800 students.

"The boost in state aid was definitely a big help," said Albert Harper, superintendent of Elmont schools, who explained that elimination of summer programs last year put a particular strain on families with limited incomes.

"We all know how much those private camps can cost. So if we can keep our children reading during the summer -- keep them focused -- it's a win-win situation for everybody," Harper said.

A Newsday survey found 19 districts that are expanding services, such as instrumental music, sports and elective academic courses. Eight districts -- among them Hempstead, Seaford, Hauppauge and Eastport-South Manor -- have reported plans to add college-level Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses.

The Eastport-South Manor district plans to hire an additional music teacher so it can extend its fourth-grade orchestra program to fifth grade. The district will also add an AP "Human Geography" course at its high school, along with college-level electives in "The Art of Poetry" and "Criminal Justice."

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"This year we got positive news," said the local schools chief, Mark Nocero, referring to an extra $1.6 million in operating aid allocated his district.

Sustainability a concern

Satisfaction is far from universal.

Twenty-one districts reported to Newsday that they will continue letting class sizes grow at least slightly next year to hold down costs. Moreover, some financial analysts at the state level have voiced doubts that the state can continue boosting aid at a generous clip.

The Citizens Budget Commission, a private nonpartisan group headquartered in Manhattan, has suggested that 5 percent aid increases are not sustainable in the future. An Albany-area think tank, the Empire Center for New York State Policy, also has warned local school officials not to count on Albany's continued largesse.

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"If they think the sun has come back out, they better think twice," said E.J. McMahon, senior fellow at the Empire Center.

"We are in a very slow, gradual recovery right now," said Tammy Gamerman, senior research associate at the budget commission. "So yes, school aid should be increased. But at a 5 percent rate? Maybe not."

Aides to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo reiterated this week that next year's aid increase is to be followed in 2014-15 by another hike, estimated at 3.4 percent. And there appears to be growing optimism in much of Long Island.

"This year is certainly better than the last several," said Gary Bixhorn, chief operating officer of Eastern Suffolk BOCES and a leading regional analyst.

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