At the close of a school budget season like no other, nine Long Island districts will hold revotes tomorrow for financial stakes that have never been higher.
The difference this year is the state's new tax-cap law, which would freeze tax levels in any district that suffers a second budget defeat. With tax revenue frozen and fixed costs on the rise, such districts could face sharp losses of teachers and student services during the 2012-13 school year.
This marks a major departure from past years, when districts with failed budgets generally could raise taxes as much as needed, as long as spending increases stayed close to the inflation rate.
"It's not the same world," said John Diviney, school board president in the Three Village district, among those where residents will go to the polls to vote on a revised budget.
In the first round of voting on May 15, a total of 105 school systems on Long Island passed budgets that kept within their district tax-levy limits. Ten other districts -- half of them on the East End -- approved budgets with tax hikes that exceeded the caps.
On top of potential losses in jobs and services, state austerity rules in effect from prior years would require districts with unapproved budgets to charge fees to youth sports leagues and other groups for use of gyms and ballfields. Such fees could run hundreds of dollars a day and put more pressure on parents' pocketbooks, sponsors said.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who pushed tax caps through the legislature last year, has contended that the restrictions are essential for maintaining fiscal discipline in a heavily taxed state. Taxpayer groups agree.
"A failed budget will decimate our schools," warned a letter recently circulated by East Islip's PTA Council.
A flier distributed in the Comsewogue district by union workers and parents predicted that a second budget rejection there would result in a "drastic increase in class sizes at all levels . . . no extracurricular clubs or intramurals . . . no athletics at any level."
One telling moment came last week at a budget hearing in Elmont attended by more than 250 residents and school employees. That elementary-only district on the Nassau-Queens border recently canceled summer school programs as part of efforts to downsize the budget that voters will decide on Tuesday. The district has warned that a second "no" vote would result in larger class sizes and other program losses.
Midway through the hearing, Jon Johnson, 44, president of a local youth sports club and a former college basketball player, strode to a microphone and urged residents to vote "yes" on the revised budget.
But Johnson also decried the loss of summer programs. And he pointed out that the most recent graduation rate in the Sewanhaka High School system, where Elmont sends its older students, is 93 percent, while in the neighboring New York City system the graduation rate is 60.9 percent.
"What's going to happen is Elmont's going to be like Queens," declared Johnson, who is well known locally for his outspokenness.
Elmont stands alone among the Island's 124 districts in attempting to override its tax cap in a revote. The scaled-down $77.59 million budget carries a 4.9 percent tax hike that is lower than the original proposal, but still above a 1.89 percent cap set by state formula. Elmont needs a 60 percent voter majority in Tuesday's vote to pass the revised spending plan.
Other districts that failed in May 15 override attempts but now propose to stay within cap limits are Center Moriches, Comsewogue, East Islip, Floral Park-Bellerose, Mount Sinai and Three Village. All need simple majorities to pass their budgets.
The same is true for Oysterponds and Tuckahoe, districts on the East End that put up budgets that adhered to caps but were rejected anyway.
Oysterponds is holding a revote on the same $5.4 million budget, but has dropped a controversial plan to give students a choice of high schools. Tuckahoe has proposed a trimmed $17.7 million budget.
During debate over the workability of tax caps, some finance experts pointed to Massachusetts as a successful model, noting that schools there have operated under caps since 1982 and students' test scores are the nation's highest.
What Massachusetts seems to demonstrate, these experts added, is that school quality can be maintained as long as state financial aid increases to compensate for losses of local tax revenue.
New York State's aid to the Island's schools will rise 4.35 percent next year.
Givebacks an issue
Locally, homeowners at recent budget hearings have contended that the underlying problem lies not with tax caps, but with refusals by school administrators or workers in some districts to share in financial sacrifices by giving up pay raises.
Center Moriches teachers, for example, are due contractual raises of 3.5 percent next year, plus annual "step" increases built into their salary schedule that average another 2.3 percent. So there was grumbling at a June 6 hearing, when district officials ran through a list of cuts they had made in their proposed $38.9 million budget -- including reductions in secretaries' compensation -- without mentioning any givebacks by teachers.
Thomas Marzagalli, president of Center Moriches' teacher union, did not respond to a request for comment.
David Haney, a retired police officer and frequent critic of district spending policies, said at the hearing that he would vote "yes" on the revised budget. But he added in an aside that he wished the union had made concessions so the spending plan could be lowered more.
"People are still mad at the teachers," Haney said as he exited an auditorium at Center Moriches High School. "They didn't give anything back."
Where to vote
Poll times and locations for Tuesday's school budget vote
Center Moriches: 7 a.m.-9 p.m. at Clayton Huey Elementary School
Comsewogue: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. at Comsewogue High School
Elmont: 6 a.m.-9 p.m. at Alden Terrace, Clara H. Carlson, Covert Avenue, Dutch Broadway, Gotham Avenue and Stewart Manor schools, as well as the Elmont Road Administration Building
Oysterponds: 3-9 p.m. at Oysterponds Elementary School
Three Village: 6 a.m.-9 p.m. at Arrowhead, Minnesauke, Nassakeag, Setauket and W.S. Mount elementary schools
Tuckahoe: 7 a.m.-8 p.m. at Tuckahoe School
Compiled by Michael R. Ebert