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At least 16 LI districts seek tax cap override

Glenn Reed (right), Board President, along with Ken

Glenn Reed (right), Board President, along with Ken Cronin, board member, listens, as he address the community during a board meeting where the board voting on budget. (April 19, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday/Jessica Rotkiewicz

A major test of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's cap on property taxation looms on Long Island, where at least 16 school districts will seek voter overrides of new tax limits set by the state.

The districts pushing for overrides are concentrated mostly in Suffolk County and include Sachem and Middle Country, the Island's second- and third-largest systems, respectively. Among the group are two smaller Nassau County districts that have only elementary schools, Elmont and Floral Park-Bellerose. The 16 systems together account for annual spending of more than $1.37 billion, or about 12 percent of the region's total school costs.

"New York will not mandate what we can or cannot do," said Glenn Reed, president of East Islip's school board and one of several school leaders characterizing override efforts as intended to preserve local control of schools.

A Newsday survey found that school boards in most districts seeking overrides approved that action last week, though many had announced their intentions earlier. Public voting on school budgets and board candidates is May 15.

Under the law approved last year, voter "supermajorities" of 60 percent are required for any increase in annual school-tax collections beyond limits set by the state. Districts failing to win approval would see taxes frozen at current levels, probably leading to cuts in programs.

Reed spoke at a Thursday night meeting where he and other board trustees voted, with one exception, to seek an override of the cap. The meeting drew about 150 people, mostly parents and school employees who applauded the decision -- a turnout that fell short of budget supporters' expectations.

Most districts under cap

The great majority of proposed 2012-13 budgets in Long Island's 124 public school districts appear to fall within the new limit on tax-levy increases, and proposed tax increases reviewed by regional officials appear lower than those in recent years. One contributing factor: the 4 percent increase in state school aid approved late last month by the governor and state lawmakers in an effort to ease local taxation.

A Cuomo spokesman said Tuesday that the cap's ultimate fate rests in the public's hands.

"The property tax cap was designed to give the people a voice in how their tax dollars are spent," spokesman Matthew Wing said in a statement, "and ultimately the voters will have the final say on school district budgets."

While 2 percent is the basic cap limit, financial exemptions prescribed by the law translate into limits that are higher or lower than that, percentagewise, for individual districts.

For example, the Floral Park-Bellerose district is seeking a 6.58 percent tax-levy increase rather than its capped limit of 4.71 percent. Middle Country seeks a 4.37 percent tax hike rather than its 3.03 percent cap, and Westhampton Beach, a 2.89 percent increase rather than its 1.75 percent cap.

Some districts have indicated they may lower their budget requests if May votes fail and a second round of balloting is required.

Taxpayers: Trim the fat

Taxpayer representatives as well as many individual homeowners denounce the push for higher taxes, saying district officials should try harder to economize. They point especially to the $200,000-plus salaries paid most school superintendents, and note that the governor has called for capping that pay at $175,000.

"They go through this every year, saying they don't have enough money, and that they may have to cut sports and other things," said Tom Spina of Selden, a retired custodian who appeared at a Middle Country school board meeting last week to demand economies. "That's baloney. If they wanted to trim the fat, they certainly could."

School authorities, however, insist that financial pressures are very real, especially in central and eastern Suffolk where the override movement is strongest. Gary Bixhorn, chief operating officer for the regional Eastern Suffolk BOCES education agency, pointed out that half of the 16 districts seeking tax overrides fall below the state's average in terms of taxable property and income, and find it far more difficult than wealthier systems to raise tax revenue under a cap.

In Middle Country, Superintendent Roberta Gerold says her district already plans to cut about 22 teaching jobs next year even if it succeeds in overriding its tax cap. If the budget fails, she added, deeper cuts would be required, including potential reduction of kindergarten classes from full- to half-day sessions, affecting about 700 children.

"We were getting phone calls and emails saying 'Don't cut the instructional day. Don't cut full-day kindergarten,' " Gerold said.

Of the 16 districts, 14 passed budgets last year by 60 percent or more. But some local officials caution that the weight given a 60 percent vote under the new law may change election-day dynamics.

"That puts us in uncharted waters and, to be frank, scares the heck out of me," said Ken Cronin, vice president of East Islip's school board.

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