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95 percent of Long Island school budgets approved

Voters check in at Centereach High School before

Voters check in at Centereach High School before voting in school elections for the Middle Country School District. (May 21, 2013) Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Voters across Long Island approved school budgets at a 95 percent clip Tuesday, confirming widespread predictions that residents would support spending plans held to modest increases by state-imposed tax caps.

Budgets were defeated, however, in six of the seven Island school systems that attempted to bust their district's tax-cap limits.

A total of 118 districts had approved spending plans for the 2013-14 school year out of a total 124 on the Island.

"School districts worked very hard this year to keep their budgets under the cap," said Alan Groveman, the Connetquot schools chief and past president of the Suffolk County Association of School Superintendents. Connetquot's $176 million budget passed handily, 2,l07 to 1,130.

Budgets failed in Baldwin, East Quogue, Manhasset, North Babylon, Sachem and South Country -- all systems that attempted to exceed their tax-cap limits and failed to get the 60 percent supermajorities required by state law.

Sachem and North Babylon had tried to pierce their caps for the second year in a row.

"Obviously, the cap has significant power," said Fred Gorman, a leading regional taxpayer advocate and founder of Long Islanders for Educational Reform, a watchdog group. He lives in the Nesconset section of the Sachem district. "It's the only way to control expenses, and people in the future will realize how dangerous it is to try for an override."

Outside Sachem's Cayuga Elementary, Steven Culver, 32, of Lake Ronkonkoma, explained his "no" vote. "I think they are doing an admirable job of trying to deal with the current fiscal conditions," he said. "But the entire idea that you need $293 million to run a school district is too much and not on par." Culver has a 1-year-old child and a baby on the way.

Sachem's budget drew a 54.2 percent voter majority. It would have raised taxes 7.49 percent, the highest proposal on the Island and well over the district's 3.14 percent levy limit.

Officials in the districts where voters rejected budgets now face the choice of resubmitting the same spending plans or reduced versions to voters on June 18 or -- an unlikely option -- opting for a zero tax hike.

The only district that successfully pierced its tax-cap limit was Bay Shore, where the budget squeaked through with a 61.4 percent majority. The other 117 districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties all stayed within their cap limits.

Keith Fuchs, 52, a financial planner, was one of the voters supporting Bay Shore's $143.6 million budget. It raises taxes 6.37 percent, well beyond the district's 3.17 percent cap.

Fuchs voiced appreciation for Bay Shore's academic offerings, especially a dual-language English/Spanish program in which both of his elementary-age children participate.

"They're doing a fantastic job," Fuchs said of his district.

Islandwide, school spending is projected to rise an average 3.22 percent next year, while property-tax collections increase an average 3.27 percent.

School taxes account for more than 60 percent of homeowners' total tax bills.

In Manhasset, orange and blue balloons bobbed on street corners, reminding residents to vote. Polls were busy there.

Manhasset resident Chris Maurischat, 38, was among local voters unconvinced of the necessity of piercing the cap.

"I wasn't very happy with it," he said of going above the cap on the tax levy. "We're looking at almost a 6 percent increase, and that's a lot in this economy."

Maurischat declined to say how he voted but said he thought the district needed to do a better job.

In Baldwin, Ralph Rose drove a red truck with a poster that read "Vote No. School Taxes Out of Control."

"Retired people can't afford to be here," said Rose, 62, who is co-president of the area's chamber of commerce. Rose also ran unsuccessfully for the school board in 2007.

Baldwin's $121.5 million budget got a 55.8 percent majority -- short of the needed 60 percent. It would have raised taxes 7 percent, well beyond its 3.14 percent cap.

As voters traipsed in and out of Bellport Middle School in the South Country district, they spoke of the choice of supporting the school budget or reining in costs.

"I'm tired of paying taxes for all these schools," said Leila Bryant of Bellport village, who noted that she and her children attended Catholic schools.

"It looks to me . . . [the budget] is all teacher salaries. I want to see higher scores, higher marks."

And Tom Quinn of Bellport said he was upset about the rise in taxes. "It's getting to the tipping point where I can't sell my house because the taxes are too high," he said.

South Country's $119.5 million budget garnered a 54.1 percent majority, also short of the needed 60 percent. It would have raised taxes 3 percent, beyond its 0.98 percent cap.

In East Quogue, Linda Stanton, 62, voted against the proposed budget.

"I hate to take programs away from the kids and see them do without, but there's just got to be another way to move around the funds without raising taxes," she said.

With Jennifer Barrios,

Sophia Chang, Scott Eidler, Mackenzie Issler

and Brittany Wait

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