Growth in school property taxes for Long Island and the rest of the state will be capped at 1.81% for the 2020-21 academic year, representing the tightest restriction in three years, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli announced Tuesday.
Annual caps, set by the state based on inflation rates, limit the amount of revenue known as tax levies that school systems and municipalities can raise in any given year. Next year’s restriction is tighter than the 2% caps set in 2019-20 and 2018-19.
“As the levy growth rate dips below 2 percent, school district and municipal officials need to be fiscally cautious and examine where they can limit spending to stay under the cap,” DiNapoli said in a statement. “Local governments will have to examine their budgets more closely to control expenses.”
While Albany’s latest announcement on caps was expected, it underlines the more general fiscal worries confronting the Island’s 124 school districts. The state itself faces a looming $6 billion budget deficit, and local school administrators are anxiously awaiting Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s budget message, which is due later this month.
Such messages include proposals for state financial assistance to school districts, which constitutes about 25% of the more than $13 billion being spent this school year on the Island’s public schools.
Roberta Gerold, superintendent of Middle Country schools, said her district, like many others, is dealing with increased costs in tutoring for students who speak limited English, expansion of special-education services, and growing student requests for high-tech courses. The Middle Country system, located in central Brookhaven Town, enrolls 9,600 students — third-largest on the Island.
“All of these come at a cost, and that cost often exceeds what the tax caps allow,” Gerold said.
The state’s tax-cap law, which took effect in 2012, limits annual growth in tax levies to 2% or the inflation rate, whichever is lower. The law, a signature initiative of the Cuomo administration, is regarded by experts as one of the strictest in the country and is widely popular with the public.
Actual tax limits in local districts vary, depending on the portion of their spending that is exempt from caps. One large exception is spending generated by school construction bonds approved by district voters.
Under law, districts seeking to override state caps must win approval by at least 60% of those voters. Such approvals are relatively rare.
Islandwide, school enrollments generally have declined since 2005, and are expected to continue dropping slightly for the next three years at least. The trend has prompted taxpayer activists to question whether public schools need as much additional money as they claim.
“It seems to me, if enrollments are going down, why aren’t our taxes going down?” said Andrea Vecchio of East Islip, a longtime civic activist and president of Suffolk County TaxPac, an advocacy group. “Of course, they’re going to say they need more money. But it’s not true.”
School advocates noted, however, that enrollments actually are rising in some districts, especially in communities experiencing large growth in immigrant populations. Such is the case in Riverhead, where advocates have scheduled a noon rally Saturday to underline their push for more state financial support.
Riverhead has formed a lobbying alliance with four other suburban districts — Glen Cove and Westbury on the Island, along with Ossining and Port Chester in Westchester County — all of which contend the state’s aid-distribution formula shortchanges their students.
Riverhead schools Superintendent Aurelia Henriquez, in a phone interview Tuesday, ticked off a list of programs and services that her system would like to provide, but cannot afford. The list includes a nine-period day at Riverhead High School (the school currently operates on eight periods), a scheduling format taken for granted in most of the region’s high schools that allows students a greater choice of courses.
“These are impossible for us, because we’re not getting the aid that we’re supposed to,” Henriquez said.
BY THE NUMBERS
Property tax levy growth for school districts over the years:
SOURCE: Office of state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli