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At least 9 LI school districts to seek tax-cap overrides

Harborfields school board vice president Donald Mastroianni, right,

Harborfields school board vice president Donald Mastroianni, right, with president Thomas McDonagh during a school board meeting on Aug. 26, 2015. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

At least nine Long Island school districts will seek approval to pierce state tax-cap limits during budget voting in May — nearly double the number of systems that said they would attempt overrides in reports submitted to Albany two months ago.

Taken together, the efforts to exceed state restrictions on property taxes represent the largest such movement on the Island since 2012, when the cap law first took effect. The push reflects the fact that caps for the 2016-17 school year will be the tightest to date, as well as financial factors specific to local districts, such as a campaign in the Harborfields system to expand from half-day to full-day kindergarten.

Harborfields and two other mid-sized districts in western Suffolk County, Elwood and Islip, recently announced they would seek voter “supermajorities” of 60 percent or more, which are required to override caps. Two smaller East End systems, East Quogue and Tuckahoe, did the same.

School boards in four additional small eastern districts — Amagansett, Bridgehampton, Greenport and Shelter Island — had projected in reports filed with the state comptroller’s office that they would attempt to exceed caps, and those boards have since voted to do so. Under law, all districts must submit such reports by March 1, indicating “Yes” or “No” on whether they intend to seek overrides.

East Quogue, Elwood, Harborfields, Islip and Tuckahoe all reported to the comptroller’s office in March that they did not expect to run over the cap. Harborfields and Tuckahoe later amended their reports to say they would; such amendments are not required.

Sachem, the region’s second-largest district, also indicated in March that it would try busting its cap. However, Sachem school officials ultimately decided to keep within the system’s allowed tax limit after receiving an infusion of more than $8.7 million in new state aid.

Voting on school budgets and board candidates is scheduled May 17 in more than 700 districts statewide, including 124 districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties. Local districts, including those with tax proposals higher than state limits, will hold public budget hearings starting Tuesday and extending through May 10.

In 2012, 16 districts attempted overrides, and seven failed. By last May, the number challenging caps had dropped to two, with one failing.

Under law, if a proposed budget is rejected, a district can seek a revote in June. But if a spending plan that pierces a district’s cap is defeated in two consecutive votes, the system is held to a zero tax increase for the coming school year. In past years, most Long Island districts that have had cap-piercing budgets defeated at the polls have subsequently put forward spending plans that are within the cap limit for a revote.

Albany’s baseline cap on annual increases in school taxation is 2 percent or the inflation rate for the previous calendar year, whichever is lower.

The statewide average cap for the 2016-17 school year is just 0.12 percent. Caps for individual districts vary widely because of exemptions for certain expenses — notably, interest payments on construction bonds approved by local voters.

At stake in many communities this year are school spending issues that stir deep emotions, pro and con.

Harborfields is pressing for an extra $600,000 in revenue that would allow the district to expand kindergarten classes to full-day sessions. The 3,200-student district, which serves the communities of Centerport and Greenlawn, is the only one on the Island remaining with half-day kindergarten.

“Our students deserve the same fair start that every other child on Long Island is already getting,” said Jennifer Rogdakis of Greenlawn, a mother of two and founder of a Facebook group campaigning for full-day kindergarten.

“We’re the last ones on the Island without it,” Rogdakis said. “Our students need more time for the curriculum they have to follow in this day and age, the higher standards they have to follow. Also, they need more time to play, to have recess, to be children.”

Opponents who want Harborfields to remain within its assigned 0.37 percent cap worry about the impact of the proposed budget on a district where homeowners’ tax bills already run high. Some opponents also noted that the district recently received more than $1.1 million in additional state aid and say that should provide sufficient new revenue.

Donald Mastroianni, now in his 10th year on the board and its current vice president, was the only trustee to vote “no” on April 21, when six others on the panel decided to attempt a cap override. Mastroianni said this was the first time he ever voted against a budget plan, and that he did not take such action lightly.

Still, Mastroianni added, his work for a nonprofit agency that provides counseling on credit and housing issues has deepened his understanding of the economic pressures that many local residents face.

“Certainly, in my line of work, I come across struggling people in our community all the time,” he said in a phone interview. “So it’s of particular concern to me when I look at the foreclosures in our area and at the potential foreclosures that might occur.”

Harborfields’ proposed $82.8 million budget would boost spending 2.96 percent. The projected $62.16 million tax levy represents a 1.52 percent increase.

Shelter Island, meanwhile, is feeling the effects of a $1.6 million bond issue approved by district voters 18 months ago. The borrowed money is being used to renovate the district’s 225-student school building, and the first interest payment of more than $190,000 will kick in starting next year.

Interest payments are exempt from the tax cap. As a result, Shelter Island would be allowed to increase taxes more than most districts, even if it did not attempt an override.

Still, local officials said they need more revenue than the district’s 2.17 percent cap allows, because they wanted to increase cash reserves in the event of unforeseen expenses. As an example, they cited the possibility that children with disabilities, requiring expensive special education services, might be enrolled in the future.

“Two or three special education students could come here and have a severe impact,” said Thomas Graffagnino, the school board’s president, who works as an engineer at a local ferry company.

Such arguments do not impress all local residents, two of whom appeared at a recent board meeting to challenge plans for a cap override.

One of them was Bob Frederick, a retired school superintendent. He pointed out that per-pupil costs in Shelter Island under the proposed budget will be more than $48,000 annually.

“Even for a small district, that’s still high,” said Frederick, who formerly worked as an educator in Nassau County and Queens.

Shelter Island’s proposed $10.96 million budget represents a 0.219 percent spending decrease, allowed by several recent retirements of senior employees. The tax levy would rise 5.92 percent to just over $10 million.

The state’s cap law requires school districts by March 1 of each year to submit forms to the comptroller’s office and other agencies, detailing their tax-levy plans for the following school year. Districts calculate their individual tax-cap limits by factoring in an inflation rate and other data and indicate whether they plan to ask voters for a cap override.

The system is meant as a sort of early alert, to give state policymakers and local voters a sense of districts’ direction.

Many local school leaders have complained that the system is impractical because it requires them to make preliminary decisions based on inadequate information. They noted, for example, that the State Legislature usually does not adopt a statewide school-aid package until April 1 — a full month after the deadline set for districts to project their tax needs.

“The intent doesn’t match up to the practicality,” said William Nimmo, assistant superintendent for business with Harborfields.

State authorities acknowledged the limitations of the March reporting system for tax levies. They pointed out, however, that districts are allowed to update information submitted to the comptroller’s office after the initial deadline.

Authorities also noted that school districts are required to provide a series of other reports to the state and local voters, giving precise financial figures. “Tax report cards” detailing proposed budgets and tax levies in every district are scheduled for release by the State Education Department this week.

“I think the important thing is that, when voters go to the polls on the third week of May, they know whether the school district is attempting an override,” said Geoffrey Gloak, a spokesman for the state Department of Taxation and Finance.

With Joie Tyrrell and Michael R. Ebert

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