School budgets approved in 120 districts

South Ocean Avenue Middle School in Patchogue posts South Ocean Avenue Middle School in Patchogue posts a reminder about the school budget vote on May 20, 2014. Photo Credit: John Roca

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Long Island voters said "yes" to school budgets at a near-record rate of 97.6 percent Tuesday, with many districts reporting heavy majorities.

Three districts that attempted to override state tax caps -- Bridgehampton, Sayville and West Babylon -- failed to win the 60 percent voter majorities required by the state's tax-cap law. They can submit the same spending plan or a revised budget for a June revote.

Sayville did not even manage a simple majority, with its $91.1 million budget going down, 1,749 "yes" votes to 2,257 "no" votes. East Hampton was the only district that succeeded in overriding its tax-levy limit.

Of the Island's 124 districts, 120 budgets passed and the three cap-piercers failed. Results in the remaining district -- Hempstead -- were not available: attorney Frederick Brewington, alleging ballot irregularities, has asked for a temporary restraining order to keep the district from finalizing its election.

The passing percentage for 2014-15 budgets was second only to the 98.4 percent set in the spring 2009 vote.

Voter approvals ensure that many districts will be able to offer extra services during the coming school year -- among them, Miller Place and Huntington, which are expanding half-day kindergarten sessions to full day.

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"I think it's outstanding," said Mike Unger, the school board president in Miller Place, referring to full-day kindergarten that will be offered to about 185 children. "My gut feeling is that you're going see a very high rate of passages generally. I don't think people have much to complain about."

Miller Place's $69 million budget passed 1,291 to 407.

Projected tax hikes in most districts are at their lowest point in more than 40 years, which many school administrators cited in predicting high passage rates for budgets.

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The four districts that attempted cap overrides on the Island this year were down from seven attempts last year and 17 in 2012. Also, in Patchogue-Medford, a ballot proposition sponsored by a parent group that wanted to expand busing for students in nonpublic schools would have pushed that district over its cap as well. That proposition failed, and the district's budget passed.

The attempted cap-bustings sparked controversy in several communities, including West Babylon.

Outside polls at Santapogue Elementary School in West Babylon, several residents stood on the sidewalk Monday morning debating the district's plan to raise next year's tax collections by 3.61 percent. West Babylon's capped limit is 1.36 percent.

Vincenza D'Accordo, 79, who voted at Santapogue, said she opposed West Babylon's $100.5 million budget and disagreed with the district's rationale for raising taxes, especially its contention that some of the extra money would help preserve junior-high sports.

"There's a lot of waste," said D'Accordo, who voted together with her husband, Vincent, 80. "And the sports -- they're always talking about cutting sports. But that's not the most important thing in the world."

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West Babylon's vote was 1,432 in favor, 1,355 against. That was a simple majority but not the required 60 percent.

In Brentwood, the Island's largest district, officials reported that the $354.6 million budget passed by a vote of 1,027 to 445.

Outside Pine Park Elementary School shortly after noon Tuesday, voters said they were aware that the district was proposing a budget with an increase in line with the state's tax-cap limit of 1.53 percent.

Carlos Cintron, a retired police officer, was concerned about taxes but found the proposed increase "manageable."

"The taxes keep going up and that's not good for anyone, but I think our teachers should be paid a good salary," said Cintron, 55, who voted with his wife and daughter, a district graduate. "That was great that the district stayed under the cap. We didn't get killed with the budget numbers this year . . . and if I want good schools for my granddaughter here I have to support it."

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Islandwide, property-tax collections, known as levies, would rise an average of just 1.57 percent 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 make up more than 60 percent of homeowners' property-tax bills on average and are the only type of taxation generally subject to a direct vote.

The Patchogue-Medford district faced a particular dilemma in this year's elections -- a situation with potential statewide ramifications.

The district's $171.4 million budget stayed within the local cap, with a slight reduction in taxes of 0.07 percent. A separate $330,948 proposition, placed on the ballot via petition by some district residents, failed; its approval would have resulted in a 0.26 percent tax increase and caused the district to pierce the cap.

School district attorneys across the state have voiced concern that other groups of private citizens who gather, say, 100 signatures on a petition, could force district boards into seeking cap overrides and 60 percent voter majorities on budgets, even if boards preferred to stay within their caps and to seek simple majorities.

"If someone else makes that decision, it's extremely troubling," said Jay Worona, general counsel for the New York State School Boards Association.

With VĂ­ctor Manuel Ramos

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