Ten tax-cap busters pass school budgets

Residents vote at Connetquot Elementary School in Islip

Residents vote at Connetquot Elementary School in Islip Terrace. (May 15, 2012) (Credit: James Carbone)

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Voters in two of the largest school districts on Long Island, Middle Country and Sachem, barely approved new budgets by the supermajority vote needed to exceed a new tax cap imposed last year to help curb spending.

A total of 17 districts on Long Island proposed budgets for the coming year that exceeded the cap, and 10 got the necessary 60 percent, while seven did not, according to Tuesday's election results.

The North Babylon, Islip, New Suffolk, Rocky Point, Greenport, Amagansett, Westhampton Beach and Remsenberg-Speonk school districts approved budgets that exceeded the state cap.

The vote in Middle Country was 60.8 percent in favor, and it was 60.2 percent in Sachem, district officials said.

More than 41 percent of the districts that exceeded the cap saw their budgets defeated.

Seven districts -- Floral Park-Bellerose, Three Village, East Islip, Elmont, Comsewogue, Mount Sinai and Center Moriches -- reported their budgets had failed to get the 60 percent supermajority needed.

If a district's proposed budget results in a tax-levy increase above that district's cap, a 60 percent majority vote -- rather than a simple majority vote -- is required to approve the budget.

The final tally showed that 115 budgets passed and nine were defeated, with Tuckahoe and Oysterponds the only budgets to fail that had not busted the tax cap. The passing rate was 93 percent.

Voters who slogged to the polls in the rain were armed with unprecedented leverage -- the new state cap law that would automatically freeze taxes in any districts that ultimately failed to win budget approval.

Under the state's new restrictions, the Island's 124 school systems were proposing tax hikes averaging just 2.6 percent. That's the lowest regional increase since all districts began same-day voting in 1996.

Districts failing to win approval would see taxes frozen at current levels, probably leading to cuts in programs.

Chris Golino, 45, a National Grid worker, said he voted in favor of Mount Sinai's budget for the coming school year even though the increase of 4.76 percent in the tax levy exceeds the state cap of 2.13 percent for the district.

"I'm not happy about it. But if I vote 'no' I put pressure on the kids," said Golino, who has three children in district school.

Irene Lhommedieu, 49, who works in a computer room at St. John's Hospital, said she voted against the Mount Sinai budget.

"The tax cap is supposed to be 2 percent and now they want to double that. I can't keep up," she said.

In Levittown, John Portanova, 47, a doorman on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, said he was "up in the air."

"We do pay a high percent of school tax," he said, but added that he was leaning toward a 'yes' vote because his family had moved to the district for its schools.

In the Middle Island district, retired MTA police officer Ted Farkas said he came to Centereach High School to cast a "no" vote.

"The governor gave us a cap and I think we should stick to it," Farkas said. "Taxes are just too high and I don't think spending more is going to make a brighter student."

Many school leaders and others predicted easy wins for budgets, at least in the 107 districts that are staying within their tax-levy limits. But those leaders noted that, in all but the wealthiest districts, modest taxes often come at the cost of fewer teachers, larger classes, shorter school schedules and fewer student services.

"While this is going to be extremely difficult in the long run," Alan Groveman, the Connetquot schools chief and president of the Suffolk County Association of School Superintendents, said on the eve of the vote. "I think we're going to have a very positive outcome on Tuesday."

Connetquot's $169.7-million budget calls for a 2.95 percent spending increase and a 2 percent tax increase, a bit below its 2.14 percent cap. Its budget passed.

Elsewhere, a few districts have been hit with last-minute leafleting and robo-calls urging residents to vote 'no.' One of those districts is Seaford, where parents rallied to raise money to save middle-school sports after a failed budget last spring.

Seaford's superintendent, Brian Conboy, said he's especially troubled by calls to homes in his district because "these people, who are anonymous, can't be held accountable," for their messages.

Seaford's $57.7-million budget would raise spending 5.41 percent and taxes 2.5 percent, which the district says is within its cap. To curb taxes, the district plans once again next year to fund only a partial middle-school sports schedule. The district's budget passed.

Michael Dawidziak, a Bohemia-based political consultant, observed that school board races often exercise more long-term influence over spending than budget votes, because boards set the terms of contracts with employee unions -- districts' single biggest cost factor.

Tuesday's elections in Bayport-Blue Point, East Islip and several other districts feature clear-cut differences among rival candidates over spending priorities.

While Dawidziak said he thinks that most proposed school budgets should pass Tuesday, he noted that public frustration over a sagging economy makes the outcomes less certain than in many years. Any district where the budget is rejected will get a second chance at passage.

With William Murphy, Emily Ngo, Denise M. Bonilla, Jim Merritt, Patrick Whittle, Mitchell Freedman, Candice Ferrette and Kay Blough

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