With Tuesday's wrap-up of school-budget revotes, finance experts say the state's new tax-cap law has clearly achieved its purpose in curbing property taxes, even if this will result next year in some losses of teachers and student services.
A total of 124 school districts in Nassau and Suffolk Counties now have completed the budget process with tax hikes averaging less than 2.6 percent -- the lowest in more than 15 years. Moreover, no local districts will be required to operate under so-called "austerity" spending rules next year, because all have won voter approval of their spending plans.
But look beneath the surface, school officials say, and prospects for public education on Long Island over the next five years -- the length of time when the cap law will be in effect before it requires reauthorization -- appear more doubtful.
Those leaders add that many poor and middle-class districts already have begun cutting back on teachers -- with more than 1,000 positions lost in the past two years alone. Reductions are likely to deepen in the years immediately ahead, officials say, as districts struggle to remain within the capped tax limits set by state formula.
"The best description of what we're looking at is 'unsustainable position,' " said Alan Groveman, superintendent of Connetquot schools and president of Suffolk's Association of School Superintendents.
Islandwide, educators say, one troubling sign is a recent dwindling of reserve funds kept by districts as a hedge against possible economic setbacks. Islandwide, those funds dropped from about $1.59 billion in the 2010-11 school year to $1.43 billion this year -- a decrease of more than 10 percent. What this suggests, finance specialists say, is that districts are using up cash reserves to stay within cap limits.
Districts also are cutting back on art, music, sports and other popular programs -- an approach that has left many parents feeling pessimistic.
East Islip, for example, lost an initial budget vote last month, then trimmed its spending plan and won adoption Tuesday. To get its tax increase within the state's cap, the district dropped plans for a number of student programs next year including middle-school sports. That will eliminate teams that have fielded about 500 seventh- and eighth-graders.
Middle-school sports were largely funded this year with $100,000 in parent donations. Jessica Carney, a mother of four who helped organize fundraising, said Wednesday that continuing economic pressures make it unlikely that such a campaign can be mounted again. Instead, Carney hopes to help start a private league that would allow a daughter to play volleyball.
"Each family would have to pay to play," the mother said. "I think we're moving toward that, where you've got to find your own enrichment for the kids."
Tax-cap supporters contend, on the other hand, that the new restrictions are working well, and that reductions in tax revenue is largely offset by recent increases in state financial aid. These advocates add that an ongoing decline in student enrollments means that teaching staffs can be reduced proportionately without damaging school quality.
"I actually think it [the cap] was a smashing success," said Michael Dawidziak, a Bohemia-based pollster and political consultant who has included school districts among his clients. "Class sizes are a particularly shaky argument, because Long Island is losing its student-age population."