A dramatic drop in the number of school districts proposing to bust state tax caps in Tuesday's budget votes reflects a growing acknowledgment among educators that those restrictions could well become part of the permanent landscape.
Only seven of Long Island's 124 school districts will try to override cap limitations in the elections, compared with 17 districts that attempted to last year.
The pattern holds true statewide, where the number of districts seeking to pierce caps has dropped to 29 this season, compared with 48 a year ago. Overall, 96 percent of 669 school systems surveyed statewide have kept within state tax limits this year, according to the New York State School Boards Association.
Last month's 5 percent increase in state financial aid for schools -- the biggest since the economic downturn took hold in 2008 -- also helped relieve any pressure to exceed the cap.
Center Moriches, to cite one example, has proposed a $39.8-million budget with a tax increase of 2.39 percent, which is within its 2.48 percent limit. Last year, the district's attempt to bust its cap was repulsed by a 60 percent negative vote that shocked many school leaders.
"The community gave us their answer -- they said 'No!' -- and I think the board ever since has heard their voice," said Russell Stewart, the district's superintendent. "I don't see the cap going away in the foreseeable future."
The tax cap generally has proved popular with the public, local educators observed privately, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has made it a signature initiative of his administration.
"We talk with legislators and legislative aides all the time, and they don't see any prospect for changes in the cap," said Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, who has dealt with education issues in Albany for 25 years. "It's also plain that the governor isn't going to make any changes."
Across the Island, proposed increases in tax levies -- that is, total revenue collected through property taxation -- are up an average 3.27 percent for the 2013-14 school year. Proposed spending is up an average 3.22 percent Islandwide.
Statewide caps, which became law in 2011, have another three years to run before they require reauthorization by the State Legislature.
An override of any district's cap requires a "supermajority" vote of at least 60 percent. Districts that keep proposed budgets within their tax-cap limits need only a simple majority vote of approval.
Districts that fail to pass budgets Tuesday will get one more chance in June. In such cases, districts usually put forward a revised, less-costly spending plan for a re-vote.
A striking feature of the state's cap law is that any district losing two votes in a row faces an outright tax freeze. No Island schools have suffered that fate so far. But some are issuing stiff warnings of the risks involved.
Sachem, the Island's second-largest school system, has indicated that failure to muster the supermajority needed to pass its budget could result in the loss of full-day kindergarten classes and elimination of a science research program, student clubs and all sports below varsity level.
The district, which mounted a successful tax-cap override last year, seeks to do so again Tuesday. Its proposed $293-million budget carries a 7.49 percent tax hike -- well above its 3.14 percent cap.
"If it doesn't pass, it's hell-on-wheels for the kids in the high school," said Lianne Daily, who attended a Sachem board meeting on May 9 and is the parent of a recent graduate. "It's not fair. They would have no extracurricular activities. No JV [junior varsity] teams. It's not pretty."
Some districts hope cap overrides will allow them to restore student services reduced during the recent economic crunch.
North Babylon, which also pierced its cap last year, wants to hire four new elementary teachers in order to lower class sizes, some of which have grown to 32 students. The district's $112-million budget would lift taxes 3.4 percent -- more than its 2.65 percent cap.
Kathy Oliva, a North Babylon resident with a daughter in second grade, told a reporter after attending a hearing last week that she calculated going beyond the cap would cost an individual property-owner $50, about the cost of a restaurant meal for two.
"I can sacrifice that one night out to make sure my child has the best education possible," said Oliva, 34, an assistant project manager for an electrical company.
The South Country district proposes to restore middle-school sports teams and add elective courses in art and music. The district's $119.5-million budget would boost taxes 3 percent, more than its 0.98 percent cap.
Lawrence Curcio, 59, who attended a May 8 budget hearing there, asserted that rising school costs had prompted some of his fellow residents to question whether they should continue living in the district.
"I really think this board didn't make an effort to curb costs," Curcio said.
Ronald Kinsella, 70, a lifelong South Country resident, voiced support for the budget.
"If we don't pass the budget, it fails and now we'll have an educational system that's falling apart," he said.
Dilemma follows failed vote
Any districts failing to muster required majorities Tuesday face unenviable choices: Put up the same budgets in June and risk voter rebuffs and tax freezes, or cut proposed spending and students services -- and hope a reduced spending plan draws enough public support to pass in the re-vote.
To avoid such scenarios, some districts are emphasizing the need to get budgets approved in the first round.
"First vote counts -- one and done," said Charles Cardillo, the Manhasset schools chief, repeating a theme used often by his district this season.
Manhasset's proposed $89.2-million budget would raise taxes 5.98 percent, which is beyond its 0.15 percent cap.
Rising costs in Manhasset, as in other districts, are largely in the area of state-managed pensions. Local school officials contend they have little control over such expenses, and public reaction at budget hearings has been largely muted.
Still, there have been flashes of irritation.
At a May 8 budget hearing in Baldwin, district officials had barely launched into an explanation of their $121.5-million spending plan when they began getting questions from some of the 50-plus residents packed into a small board room.
Baldwin's budget would raise taxes 7 percent, well beyond its 3.14 percent cap.
One resident, Fred Wilmer, wanted to know why district officials started the discussion by describing their budget increase as $1.58 a day for the average homeowner, rather than providing a larger annual figure, which was $575.
"This is like a snow job," said Wilmer, 73, a retired backhoe operator.
Some residents supported the district's position, noting that "no" votes could result in elimination of popular programs. But there were disapproving murmurs from the audience when officials confirmed that their long-range financial plan envisions three annual 6-percent tax hikes, on top of next year's 7 percent.
Baldwin has maintained that it needs to rebuild cash reserves after drawing down on those funds in the past.
"That's really what it's going to take to get the district back on track," Superintendent James Mapes said.
Bay Shore also has seen sharp exchanges. The district's $143.6-million budget would raise taxes 6.37 percent, contrasted with a 3.17 percent cap.
At a May 13 hearing, Maureen Virsinger, assistant superintendent for business, defended the budget in front of an audience of about 100 residents as an effort "to sustain as much as possible the programs that we have."
But Jenn Vignola, 53, declared she opposes any hike.
"We shouldn't be saying how much can [taxes] increase, it should be how much can we lower it," Vignola said.
WHY THE TAX CAP LIMIT CAN BE EXCEEDED
Long Island school districts are proposing tax hikes averaging 3.27 percent for the 2013-14 school year -- increases that have raised eyebrows at recent board meetings.
Why, some taxpayers have asked, should property-tax collections rise at this pace? Hasn't New York State clamped a 2 percent cap limit on such increases?
In fact, a statewide 2 percent cap has been in place for nearly two years now. But cap limits for individual districts may be either higher or lower than that, depending on the circumstances.
For example, certain school costs are excluded from the basic 2 percent limit, Albany's rationale being that this makes the entire system more equitable.
Among excluded costs are any large increases in district contributions to a state pension fund for teachers and other professionals. In the coming school year, contributions will rise from 11.84 percent of payroll to 16.25 percent of payroll.
That mandatory contribution will be the biggest single driver of school costs next year, and most of it is excluded from the basic 2 percent cap.
In effect, that means that cap limits for individual districts have been adjusted upward for next year, allowing them to raise tax revenue to pay for pensions without taking money away from other school priorities.