Good Afternoon
Good Afternoon
Long IslandEducation

Long Island school budgets pass with ease

Voters head into Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle

Voters head into Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School to cast a ballot in school elections Tuesday, May 17, 2016, in Hempstead. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Long Island voters passed school budgets at a near-record rate Tuesday — an apparent response to the lowest projected tax hikes in more than 20 years.

With all 124 districts reporting, Newsday’s count showed 122 budgets passed in Nassau and Suffolk counties and two budgets failed — a success rate of 98.4 percent.

The votes mark the ninth year in a row with more than 90 percent of budgets approved, mostly by lopsided majorities.

“Well, I’m absolutely thrilled with the results,” said Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Plainview-Old Bethpage schools and president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents. “I know the superintendents and board have worked very hard with their communities to maintain low tax rates.”

Lewis noted that many districts are adding or restoring programs in the 2016-17 school year. Plainview-Old Bethpage, for example, is expanding its daily high-school schedule from eight periods to nine.

The schools chief warned, however, that districts might face renewed program cuts in future years, unless state lawmakers continue providing generous yearly increases in financial aid.

Plainview-Old Bethpage’s $149.2 million budget, up 2.19 percent from this year, sailed through by a vote of 2,063 to 602.

Seven of nine school systems that attempted to override state tax caps with voter “supermajorities” of 60 percent or better succeeded in those efforts. They included Amagansett, Bridgehampton, East Quogue, Greenport, Harborfields, Islip and Shelter Island.

“I feel ecstatic — I really do,” said David Gamberg, the Greenport school superintendent, who doubles as schools chief of nearby Southold. “Communities in this region do pay close attention to what goes on in their schools. If districts act responsibly, voters respond in kind.”

Greenport’s $17.9 million budget, which raises spending 5.85 percent, passed by a vote of 320 to 160, or 66.67 percent.

Override attempts failed, however, in Elwood, a midsized district in western Suffolk County, as well as in the tiny East End district of Tuckahoe.

At Elwood Middle School, one longtime resident, John Chichester, set up a table outside the polling site early in the day with a sign that said, “No to Higher Taxes.”

“We have a lot of retired people in this community,” said Chichester, adding that such residents face an increasing squeeze living on Social Security payments.

Islandwide, 124 districts have proposed more than $12.1 billion in spending for the 2016-17 school year — up 1.9 percent from last year. Projected tax levies — that is, total collections from local property taxation — would increase by an average of just 0.58 percent — the smallest hikes on record.

For next year, the region has received $155 million in new state financial aid, which many districts are using to restore or add programs ranging from pre-engineering courses to varsity wrestling.

Jean Peters of Syosset, who is in her 70s, voted to support that district’s $219,860,188 budget. “The focus should always be on the children,” she said. “They’re the foundation of the house.”

Syosset’s $219.8 million budget passed overwhelmingly, 1,505 to 425.

Islandwide, one hot budget issue this year revolved around the question of whether some districts are funding new programs in part by piling up excessive cash reserves. The state comptroller’s office since 2014 has issued more than a dozen audits criticizing individual districts for this practice.

The issue became the focus of a contentious school-board race in Northport-East Northport, where two rival slates of candidates ran for at-large seats. The district was the target of a critical audit of its reserve funds in 2014.

On one side of the campaign were three board incumbents — Julia Binger, Lori McCue and Andrew Rapiejko — who ran as a slate. On the other side were two challengers, Allison Noonan and Shawne Albero.

Voters delivered a split decision, giving the nod to Noonan, McCue and Rapiejko. The district’s $161.3 million budget passed easily, 2,568 to 687.

Noonan and Albero were backed by another board member, Tammie Topel, who has criticized Binger, McCue and Rapiejko. Topel contended that the three board colleagues were too supportive of a former superintendent, Marylou McDermott, who built up reserves on grounds that the district needed a financial cushion.

“Let other eyes come in and take a look at what’s going on,” Topel said Tuesday morning, as she stood outside Dickinson Avenue Elementary School in East Northport, urging voters to support Noonan and Albero.

Backers of Binger, McCue and Rapiejko said, on the other hand, that the trio helped correct Northport-East Northport’s financial problems by bringing in a new superintendent, Robert Banzer.

“These three were instrumental in making the change,” said Megan McCue, the oldest daughter of Lori McCue and a college sophomore, who was also campaigning outside Dickinson Avenue School.

Outside Tecumseh Elementary School in Farmingville, which the Sachem school board has on the list of schools to close, some residents voted in favor, saying that the community needs to support education.

Husband and wife Joseph and Maryann Kmiotek, both 53 and Farmingville residents, voted in favor of the district’s spending plan, saying that maintaining educational and sports programs is what keeps children involved.

The couple is sad to see the school possibly close, nonetheless.

“People are losing their jobs; the kids have to move,” Maryann Kmiotek said.

Sachem’s $306.4 million budget, which raises spending 2.7 percent, passed 4,229 to 1,431.

With Stacey Altherr and Kay Blough

Latest Long Island News