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Long IslandEducation

9 school districts pass downsized budgets

Gotham Avenue Elementary School in Elmont, New York

Gotham Avenue Elementary School in Elmont, New York was one of nine Long Island school districts to hold a budget revote on Tuesday. (June 19, 2012) Credit: Howard Schnapp

In an emotional finale to the school budget season, nine Long Island districts succeeded Tuesday in passing mostly downsized budgets on revotes and avoiding further cutbacks in jobs and student services that could have been forced by the state's new tax-cap law.

The winners included East Islip, Center Moriches, Oysterponds and Tuckahoe -- all districts that had seen their initial spending plans voted down by substantial majorities in the first round on May 15.

Elmont, an elementary-only district on the Nassau-Queens border, became the only one of Long Island's 124 districts to override its tax cap on a revote.

"I'm excited for the children of Elmont. I think it's a great thing!" said Derek Lawrence, vice president of the Elmont Cardinals Sports Club, a youth sports group whose organizers campaigned hard for budget adoption in that district.

 

OK in Elmont

Elmont passed its reduced $77.59 million budget by a vote of 2,249 to 1,352, or 62.5 percent -- slightly higher than the 60 percent needed to exceed its 1.89 percent tax cap. The approved budget carries a 4.9 percent tax hike.

"We had a tremendous turnout. I think we had 100 or 200 more votes than came out last month," said Robert DeStefano, a board of education member in the Comsewogue district, which serves Port Jefferson Station. "It's great to see the community rally in force for something as important as the education of our kids."

Comsewogue's $78.2 million budget, which will raise taxes 2.72 percent, passed 2,179 to 603.

In East Islip, a downsized $105.8 million budget passed 3,355 to 2,579. That spending plan carried a 2.99 percent tax increase, down from the initial 5.94 percent projection and within the district's 3.23 percent cap.

Many local parents who turned out to vote Tuesday emphasized the need to protect children's school programs from further cutbacks.

"My daughter's been in orchestra since she was in third grade. I think it would be really unfair to take it away now," said Celeste Degener, 52, a social worker, who voted "yes" Tuesday afternoon at Ruth C. Kinney Elementary School in Islip Terrace. "Kids need more than the books."

Degener's daughter is a sixth-grader in the East Islip district, which already eliminated 27 staff positions, along with middle school sports and some other services, to get its projected tax increase within the capped limit. The district had warned that a second budget failure would force $1.9 million in additional cuts, affecting kindergarten, music, sports and other programs.

Of the nine districts, seven tried in initial votes on May 15 to exceed their tax-cap limit, which requires approval by a 60 percent supermajority. Six of the seven lowered proposed budgets so the spending plans offered Tuesday fell within their respective district caps and a simple majority vote was needed for passage.

"I think the community realized we worked hard to get the budget down," said Joseph McHeffey, the school board president in Center Moriches, where a scaled-down $38.9 million budget passed 764-575.

That plan carried a 2 percent tax hike, down from the original 4.56 percent projection and well within the 2.95 percent cap set by state formula.

 

Passage clearOther districts passing budgets on revotes after failing to override caps in the first round included three in Suffolk County -- Comsewogue, Mount Sinai and Three Village -- and Floral Park-Bellerose in Nassau.

Oysterponds and Tuckahoe, both small districts on the East End, put up budgets in the May 15 vote that adhered to tax-cap limits but were rejected anyway. Oysterponds reoffered the same budget but dropped a controversial plan to give students a choice of high schools. Its budget passed 173-142. Tuckahoe trimmed its spending plan, which passed 256-222.

In Mount Sinai, Deborah Lang, 48, voted quickly before driving her daughter, a 10th-grader, to her math final. She has two other children in district schools, in the sixth and eighth grades.

She said she voted in favor of the revised spending plan because she thinks the district offered a "very modest budget" considering the current economic conditions and the fixed costs that districts must pay.

"With the current climate in Albany, I really don't think schools have much leeway," said Lang, who works as a registered nurse at Long Island Veterans Home in Stony Brook. "These are tough times for the schools, and you don't want the children to have to suffer."

Mount Sinai's trimmed $54.6 million budget, which carried a tax hike of 2.13 percent, just at the district's cap, passed 1,492-735. The budget cuts some high school sports, such as varsity bowling and gymnastics, and also may eliminate some undersubscribed student clubs.

In the Comsewogue district, Ann Loud, 49, said she voted "yes" because student activities such as art, drama and sports are extremely important to her family.

"I'm going to leave here and walk around my neighborhood with a placard to tell people to vote 'yes,' " the mother said after voting Tuesday.

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