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All Nassau school districts staying within tax-cap limits

A student takes notes in class on May

A student takes notes in class on May 1, 2013. Credit: Heather Walsh

All 56 public school districts in Nassau County plan to stay within state tax caps in proposed budgets that voters will decide May 20 -- the first time that has happened since the limits were imposed in 2012.

Two Nassau districts, Baldwin and Valley Stream Central, which last month signaled intentions to attempt cap overrides, reversed course this week and decided to stay within their respective tax-levy limits.

In Suffolk County, five of 68 districts have either said they will definitely propose 2014-15 budgets that will pierce their caps or are keeping their options open. Still, in most of those school systems, the proposed tax increases are less than what was initially projected.

Sayville, for example, approved a 2.99 percent hike in tax collections next year -- down from an initial 5.59 percent projection. The district's revised allowable cap is about 1.22 percent. The board wrestled with options before voting Thursday night.

Overall, the number of districts Islandwide that are attempting to pierce tax-levy limits promises to be the lowest ever. Seven districts attempted overrides last May; 17 tried in May 2012. District budgets that bust caps must get 60 percent voter approval to pass, instead of a simple majority.

School administrators cited a combination of new financial incentives and penalties approved 10 days ago by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state lawmakers as the cause for their change of direction.

"They've put us in a position where we have little choice," said James Scannell, superintendent of Baldwin schools.


More state aid this year

Albany's carrot-and-stick approach provides Nassau-Suffolk school systems with $125.7 million in additional state financial aid next year -- more than double the increase proposed by Cuomo in January. The extra state assistance reduces the amount districts have to raise through local property taxes.

So, Baldwin's school board agreed Tuesday to stick with a 1.51 percent increase next year -- down from a 3.25 percent hike originally proposed that would have required an override. Some local taxpayers were relieved. Baldwin failed to pierce its cap in initial voting last spring, forcing a second vote on a budget with a reduced tax.

"We didn't want to take the same chance again," said George Siberón, a longtime Baldwin resident who attended Tuesday's meeting. Siberón, father of a seventh-grader in the district, is executive director of the Hempstead Hispanic Civic Association.

On the penalty side, homeowners in districts that exceed their tax caps will become ineligible for tax-rebate checks due to be mailed out shortly before November's elections. The value of rebates has been estimated as high as $150 per household, though the state has not provided precise figures.

School leaders across the Island complain that the state's approach continues to force cuts in valuable student services.


Tough choices

In West Babylon, some teachers, parents and students urged the district to pierce its cap. The alternative, those school supporters were told by their board, would be the loss of arts and sports offerings, and the equivalent of about 10 teachers.

"I realize that many of the reductions outlined here are hard for us to swallow," trustee Diane Thiel said. She spoke Tuesday at a board meeting attended by about 200 teachers, parents, students and others.

Debbie Serrano, a mother of three, attended the meeting to stress the importance of sports in keeping her away from drugs when she was a teen. "If we cut sports, we can just say 'goodbye' to our kids," Serrano said.

Local opinion was mixed. Of 156 PTA members in West Babylon who responded to a recent survey, 88 said the district should not attempt an override.

In the end, the board decided preliminarily on a tax increase of 3.61 percent. The district's cap is 1.36 percent, according to local officials.

The other districts that have decided to seek cap overrides or still are considering doing so are Bridgehampton, East Hampton and East Quogue.

The cap law restricts the base increase in annual tax collections, known as levies, to 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is lower. The inflation rate used in calculating 2014-15 taxes is 1.46 percent.

Certain district expenses are exempt. The result is that caps calculated for individual districts vary widely.

Districts that attempt to pierce their cap and do not draw the necessary 60 percent vote can submit the same budget or a revised budget to a second vote. Two failed votes would result in frozen tax levies for 2014-15.

With Michael R. Ebert

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