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Long IslandEducation

95% of Long Island school budgets pass

Four-year-old Giavanna Moscardino peeks out from behind the

Four-year-old Giavanna Moscardino peeks out from behind the curtain of a voting booth while her mother, Angelica, votes on the William Floyd School District budget at William Floyd High School. (May 17, 2011) Photo Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

On an election day when many residents said they felt forced to choose between heavy tax increases and painful cuts to public education, all but five school districts reported that their proposed budgets passed.

With all but the Lawrence district reporting, more than 95 percent of budgets passed on Tuesday, with proposals rejected in Seaford, Oyster Bay, Westbury, Locust Valley and Fishers Island.

The Seaford, Oyster Bay, Westbury and Locust Valley budget proposals carried significant hikes to the local tax levy -- 8.99 percent in Seaford, 5.4 percent in Oyster Bay, 5.5 percent in Westbury, and 5.81 percent in Locust Valley. Fishers Islands' budget proposal called for a 1.9 percent increase over the current tax levy.

The Oyster Bay district is also reeling from school officials' announcement that district high school students will have to retake four Advanced Placement exams. The results were invalidated by the College Board because the school violated a seating policy for test takers, officials said.

Seaford voter Dan O'Brien, 63, said he doesn't usually vote in school elections. But this year, Seaford's nearly 9 percent proposed tax levy increase drove him to the polls despite the afternoon's rain.

The message O'Brien wanted to send was "they should be a little bit more careful with our money," he said. O'Brien said high taxes were "tough" on both older residents and the younger generation.

"I don't know how they're going to be able to stay here," he said of younger Long Islanders.

Budgets barely passed in a pair of districts where heavy proposed tax increases made passage a hard sell. In Central Islip, where an average home will see a 6.55 percent tax increase, the budget passed by nine votes of more than 1,900 cast, in the unofficial count. In William Floyd, where taxes will rise 12.48 percent for an average home, the budget passed by 15 votes, 2,500-2,485.

In Huntington, the budget passed, but school board president Bill Dwyer was defeated in his re-election bid. Challengers Jennifer Hebert and Adam Spector defeated Dwyer and two other challengers for three-year terms.

Dwyer cast the deciding vote in the school board's controversial decision to close Jack Abrams Intermediate School.

"I haven't seen any improvement in the schools and then they closed Jack Abrams," said voter Vera A. Knight, 60, a Huntington Station resident. "It seems to me the board ignored my community and closed the school. There was no respect. No one was listening, so the board needs to be changed. Some of these people must go."

In Middle County, where the budget passed, board vice president Susan Jacobson was defeated by challenger Daniel Hill, who said during the campaign that the district's per-student spending was too low.

Proposed budgets total $10.8 billion in education spending for 2011-12, up 2.17 percent from current spending. Tax levies, the total revenue raised by local property taxes, would have increased an average of 3.96 percent Islandwide if all proposed budgets had been approved.

The difference between spending and taxes is mostly because of record cuts in state aid to schools totaling $206 million. The reduction includes $89 million in federal jobs money that is not being renewed next year.

On the Island, school taxes account for more than 60 percent of property taxes. Those bills rank among the nation's highest.

In response to the funding crunch, districts' proposed budgets call for slashing more than 2,000 jobs in the coming school year, including more than 1,200 teachers, Newsday found in its annual survey of spending and staffing plans. That would be the biggest wave of staff reductions since the early 1990s.

In Center Moriches, Superintendent Russell Stewart said he was elated that his district's budget passed. Voters approved the budget -- and its 6.62 percent tax levy increase -- by a count of 958 to 539.

"We were hoping it would do well, I don't think we ever believed it would do this well," Stewart said.

Few voters at the West Babylon school district's administration building claimed to be happy with a proposed budget that hikes taxes 6.46 percent and eliminates 54 staff positions.

But they were unhappy for different reasons. Some, like Kim McLasky, a classroom aide whose job is one of those being cut, voted for a budget she described as too harsh; retirees Vicky and Joe Miller rejected that same budget because it was "ridiculously high."

McLasky worried that the new budget would weaken music and art, programs she said are worth the money. "I feel the pinch," she said. "We're struggling, but I'm not going to take it out on my child. I'll cut back another way."

Despite some heavy tax increases on the table, some districts struggled with low turnout at midday because of steady rain. Barbara Horsley, assistant superintendent of the Farmingdale school district, said voter turnout was "slightly less" than expected due to the rainy weather.

But many voters who did show up were not shy about expressing their opinions on planned tax increases and proposals to shed staff and programs.

At Howitt Middle School in Farmingdale, voter Thomas Reddy scoffed at the idea that a district plan to trim 39 positions was too deep a cut. Reddy said high teacher salaries have contributed to the need for budget cuts in the district.

"Staff cuts? These guys are making a fortune," Reddy said.

Julianna Difruscio, 20, a nanny whose parents are teachers and who plans on becoming a teacher herself, voted for the West Babylon budget. She was unhappy, though, about reduced funding for special education programs, and said she would have made heavier cuts to sports before touching those programs.

"They can throw balls, but can they read?" she said of the district's students.

Brentwood district officials, whose proposed budget passed, have said about 90 teaching positions will be eliminated through layoffs and attrition. Under the spending plan, the high schools, middle schools and freshman center will revert to an eight-period day, and about half of the sports teams -- including all ninth-grade junior varsity teams -- will be eliminated.

Carmen Hannibal, 65, a Bay Shore resident who has lived in the Brentwood district for 30 years, said while taxes are high she would vote for the budget because she didn't want school programs cut. "My youngest's 30. We moved here to better ourselves and if we can't do good by the kids, what's the point?"

James Nordhausen, 79, of Brentwood, said he raised five children who went through district schools and while he could little afford a tax increase, he hated seeing programs cut. "I don't want to see the kids lose out on the extras -- we don't have a lot of those here."

At Lindenhurst Middle School, the voter turnout was steady throughout the day, said chief inspector Michele Claud. "It's definitely a big turnout," Claud said. Claud reported about 500 people had voted by 4 p.m.

Voters were torn between approving a hefty 6.89 percent tax increase or rejecting the budget and facing significant program cuts -- but ended up approving the budget.

"I just thought about the kids and the things they would be taking away from them," said Pam Doyle, 61, in explaining her vote for the budget.

"I don't want austerity for the kids," said Alice Weckerle, 87. "My kids were on austerity and it was not fun. So they'll get my vote for the budget every time."

Weckerle's husband, Kenneth, 87, said he would have preferred to not vote for the budget. "But if you don't vote for it, then they come back and many times they add on to it and stick it down your throat," he said.

Central Islip's budget passed despite a sizable tax increase and a reduction in dozens of teaching positions.

Jill Falcone, 58, a patient account representative, voted for the budget in part because officials managed to decrease the budget by 2.5 percent while keeping several school programs.

"It's not going up from last year, so I can't complain," she said of the budget.

Meanwhile she said she voted to elect some new school board members who she hopes will better negotiate labor issues with teachers, she said. "I'm just hoping for a fresh set of people who might look at things differently," she said.

Madeline London, who has lived in the Huntington district for six years and has one child in district schools, voted in favor of her district's budget.

"I'll always vote yes for the budget even though I'm disappointed that we'll lose some teachers and aides if it passes. Along with the good teachers, huge cuts in special education is also upsetting. It's the wrong area to cut; to take from the kids who need it most is not right. I don't think there should be a decision that has to be made between kids who play sports and a child with disabilities. It shouldn't have to be a choice."

Voters in the South Huntington school district made their way past groups of high-schoolers to get to the polling place at Walt Whitman High's south gymnasium.

Outside, enterprising groups of parents and Boy Scouts set up tables laden with candy, school booster apparel and raffle prizes to attract voters heading to the polls.

Anne Napolitano, 46, said she cast a ballot for the $140.3 million budget, which did garner voter approval.

"We need to support the school district," said Napolitano, who added that she has kids in fourth and eighth grade. "I think [her kids] will be hurt if it doesn't pass."

The proposed 2011-12 budget includes a tax-rate increase of 5.9 percent, as well as numerous program cuts, including the loss of 62 jobs, three high school varsity teams, and a reduction from nine periods to eight at the high school.

Adrienne Geller, 55, said she supported the budget, even though the tax increase would be a burden.

"We would have liked it to be lower, but given today's day and age, we believe education is the most important thing," Geller said.

Natasha Betts, 29, said she also supported the budget, but was saddened by the many cuts.

"Definitely with sports, teachers, after-school activities, they cut a lot," Betts said.

With William Murphy, Jo Napolitano, Nicholas Spangler, Carl MacGowan, Jennifer Maloney, Aisha Al-Muslim, John Hildebrand, Stacey Altherr, Emi Endo, Joie Tyrrell, Sarah Crichton, Paul LaRocco, Jennifer Barrios, Denise M. Bonilla, Deborah S. Morris, Yamiche Alcindor, Michael Amon, Chau Lam, Matthew Chayes and Mitchell Freedman

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