LI school budget votes totaling $11.7B set for Tuesday

Voters head to the polls on May 20, 2014, in LI's 124 school districts, where proposed budgets Islandwide seek an average 2.27% increase, under which property taxes would go up an average 1.57%, the lowest rise in more than 40 years. (Credit: Newsday Staff)

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Long Island's 124 school districts hold votes Tuesday on a combined $11.7 billion in proposed spending -- budgets carrying the lowest projected tax hikes in more than 40 years.

Property-tax collections, known as levies, would rise an average of just 1.5 percent in Nassau County and 1.65 percent in Suffolk in the 2014-15 school year.

State tax officials have said qualified homeowners should face no dollar increases at all because of tax-rebate checks scheduled to be mailed out shortly before November's state elections.

School taxes comprise more than 60 percent of homeowners' property-tax bills on average, and are the only type of taxation generally subject to a direct vote.

School leaders on the Island predicted high passage rates for budgets, citing a combination of low tax increases and frugality. District spending is projected to rise next year by an average 2.4 percent in Nassau and 2.15 percent in Suffolk -- well below regional averages in recent years.

Over the past six years, more than 90 percent of districts' spending plans have consistently won voter approval during the first round of balloting in May. Any districts where budgets fail can hold June revotes.

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Local educators cautioned against complacency, noting that fewer than 15 percent of voters normally turn out for school elections.

"I would say there's genuinely a feeling of optimism about the outcome of budget votes," said David Feller, the North Merrick school chief and president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents.

"But you don't want to take this for granted," Feller added. "It's important to come out and vote. It's people's constitutional right, and it's a good example for their kids."

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Four districts -- Bridgehampton, East Hampton, Sayville and West Babylon -- have proposed budgets that would override a state tax cap and thus disqualify residents from receiving tax rebates. In Patchogue-Medford, a ballot proposition sponsored by a parent group to expand busing for students in nonpublic schools would push that district over its cap.

Overrides of tax-levy limits require voter majorities of 60 percent or more.

"I think it's going to be close," said Jennifer Longo, a PTA council president in West Babylon. "If that's what parents really want, they'll come together and the budget will pass."

Longo's group surveyed parents earlier this year and reported that 88 of 156 responding opposed piercing the cap.

The number of districts on Long Island with proposed overrides has dropped steadily over the three years that caps have been enforced -- from 17 in 2012, to seven last year to five this year.

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A total of 371 school board candidates are running Islandwide, many of them unopposed. Sixty-five districts have 251 candidates in contested elections.

A growing parents' movement against standardized state tests based on new Common Core academic standards has injected that issue into dozens of district contests.

Leaders of Long Island Opt-Out, a grassroots parent organization, had endorsed 36 candidates in 24 districts as of noon Monday and were continuing to review other candidates. The group supports changes in state law that would allow parents to legally pull children out of state tests.

Jeanette Deutermann of North Bellmore, a founder of the opt-out movement on the Island, said she was urging parents to vote "yes" on school budgets, because "no" votes would not alter state testing.

"Unfortunately, some people feel that turning down a budget is a way to stop the expense of testing and curriculum associated with Common Core," Deutermann said. "What they don't understand is that those will be the only things left, because testing is mandated in law. So they'll take away music instead."

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