Voters turn out for school budget revotes
Residents trekked to the polls Tuesday in three Long Island school districts holding revotes in a final effort to pass budgets and avoid tax freezes -- the lowest number of revotes since the state's tax-cap law reshaped the system in 2012.
In the Sayville and West Babylon districts, polls opened at 7 a.m. and will close at 9 p.m. Bridgehampton's vote started at 2 p.m. and will continue until 8 p.m.
The small number of districts having revotes reflects a new economic reality: A large and growing majority of the Island's 124 districts complied this year with tax-cap restrictions, and voters responded with overwhelming approval of the lowest school-tax increases in more than 40 years. Last spring, six districts held revotes; nine districts did so in 2012.
One motivating factor comes in the form of new state financial incentives. In April, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state lawmakers approved election-year tax rebates for residents of districts that keep within caps.
Bridgehampton, which serves 169 students on the Island's semirural South Fork, is swimming against the tide this year. Officials there scheduled a second vote on a $12.3 million spending plan that would boost taxes 8.76 percent, the highest increase in Nassau and Suffolk counties.
The district's cap is 4.42 percent, so the lowered budget must pull 60 percent approval. Bridgehampton's plan got 54 percent in the May 20 vote.
Tuesday afternoon, voters' cars lined the semicircular drive in front of Bridgehampton School -- the district's only permanent student facility -- and some budget supporters predicted passage with the required supermajority.
"They got more people out this time," said one parent, Kelly Davis, 34, as she emerged from the school's polling site. She added that she and other parents received automated phone calls from the district urging them to vote.
With her was daughter Alexis, 8, wearing a "Did you vote?" sticker handed out Tuesday by her second-grade teacher.
Local school supporters said they want to provide an enriched educational experience for their students, many of whom are sons and daughters of workers in the area's services industry.
While even some budget opponents said Tuesday they expected the get-out-the-vote drive likely would succeed, several said they believe the district's spending level is outrageous.
Official state figures put Bridgehampton's spending at about $58,000 per student. Dividing the proposed budget by enrollment, however, yields a much higher cost.
"They're getting $75,000 per student and that seems quite high," said Larry Dangel, a retired computer specialist who also voted at the school.
Per-pupil costs in Bridgehampton are high because of the district's small enrollment.
Since the tax-cap limits were imposed in 2012, North Babylon is the only Long Island district to succeed in passing its original cap-busting budget on a second attempt. However, North Babylon's 3.4 tax hike approved in 2013 was far lower than Bridgehampton's current projected figure.
Bridgehampton school officials have noted that, because of their district's taxable property wealth, budget passage would cost a typical homeowner no more than a few hundred dollars. They added that a budget defeat would mean staff layoffs and deep cuts in elective courses and a prekindergarten program.
Budget opponents have responded that the projected tax hike is out-of-line with figures in other districts, where the average increase for 2014-15 is 1.57 percent. The controversy has revived talk in the community of closing down the high school program and paying tuition to other districts for those students -- an approach rejected by the school board in 2008.
In Sayville, a steady stream of residents voted in the cavernous gym of a former junior high school, now a community college center. Elections officials said 594 people had cast ballots by 11 a.m. -- a higher-than-average turnout, but fewer than the 763 who had voted by the same hour in last month's election.
Most residents interviewed said they support the district's revised $90 million budget, which nudges spending up 0.66 percent and has a tax-levy increase that equals the state-imposed cap of 1.22 percent.
Many added, however, that there are lingering resentments in the community over the original $91.1 million budget, which would have pierced the cap.
"I think they needed -- if this is the right phrase -- to be taught a lesson," said Townsend Anschutz, 69, a safety engineer at Brookhaven National Laboratory. He added that he voted "yes" on the trimmed budget after having voted "no" on the initial plan.
Sayville's original spending plan was rejected by a decisive 56 percent majority.
This time around, because the budget meets the cap, only a 50-percent-plus simple majority of those voting is required. The same holds true in West Babylon, which also lowered its budget to within the district's cap limit.
Tuesday, some other Sayville voters continued to voice concern over the district's high property taxes.
"I don't want to have to leave the Island," said Shirley Lange, 75, a condominium owner who is recently widowed. "My family is here and everything."
To meet its cap, Sayville eliminated secondary summer school and 15 coaching positions.
In West Babylon -- where the revised budget would raise spending 0.63 percent and taxes 1.36 percent -- the district cut the equivalent of 9.9 teachers, 18 hall monitors and a number of off-site sports, including bowling and golf.
If voters again reject the proposed spending plans, administrators in both districts have warned of deeper reductions to come in the form of contingency budgets with a zero percent increase.
Sayville, which failed to obtain even a simple majority in May, has issued the shrillest warnings, which include the possible closing of an elementary school.
West Babylon obtained a 51 percent majority in May. Some local officials, including James Bocca, the only board member who opposed the district's original cap-piercing budget, said recent cost cuts should be enough to ensure public support.
"I think the budget's going to pass," Bocca said.
John Bagorazzi, 70, who has lived in West Babylon for 50 years, was among those voting Tuesday afternoon at Santapogue Elementary School. He said he voted against the reduced spending plan.
"I think the school district should be able to find another way to get it lower," Bagorazzi said. While the district has proposed cuts to student programs, he said, "when are they going to cut something for the teachers?"
Lisa Pastore, 49, of West Babylon, said she was against the initial budget and voted "no" last month. Tuesday, she voted in favor of the revised budget.
"The first time I wasn't thrilled," Pastore said. "But they redid it and now I am OK with it. They lowered it a little, but something is better than nothing . . . . The first time they wanted too much."
With Joie Tyrrell