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Elwood agrees to stay within tax cap, Tuckahoe to decide in June

Members of the Elwood school board listen to

Members of the Elwood school board listen to a presentation on budget options during a public meeting where they discuss their upcoming budget re-vote, Monday night, May 23, 2016. Credit: Newsday Photo/ Thomas A. Ferrara

One of the two school boards on Long Island that failed to pass budgets in the first round of voting decided to reduce its budget to within the state-mandated tax cap, and the other deferred a decision on how to proceed with the June 21 revote until its next meeting.

The Tuckahoe board met more than two hours before agreeing to postpone a decision, but hinted it would likely vote again to pierce the state-mandated tax cap. In Elwood, board members voted 3-2 to limit the tax increase to the tax cap of 0.66 percent, deciding to draw $150,000 from reserve funding to meet its budget goal.

The two districts were among nine on the Island — all in Suffolk County — that attempted to override state tax caps in initial voting on May 17. They failed to muster 60 percent “supermajorities” required to pierce local district tax caps.

Their options include resubmitting the same budget plans, cutting back the plans but still piercing the cap, filing a plan that does not go above the cap or doing nothing, which would revert the coming year’s budget to the current spending plan. District boards also have the option of skipping revotes and adopting “contingency” budgets with zero tax increases. Districts face tax freezes if they fail to win budget votes twice in a row.

Parents in the Tuckahoe district said they were disappointed in the budget failure earlier this month and talked of starting a phone chain to encourage more people vote June 21.

Three options were discussed. One would be to stay within the tax levy cap but borrow $412,609 from its fund balance and not hire a security position; another is to pierce the tax cap, but by 1.50 percent; and the third is a 1.90 percent tax hike — less than the 2.48 percent originally offered — but still above its cap. A savings of around $240,000 was achieved through a renegotiated high school tuition agreement with the Southampton School District.

Tuckahoe has 350 students on Suffolk’s South Fork and is one of the smallest school districts on Long Island.

In Elwood, board members set a budget of $59,458,599 through some cuts in administration and the fund transfer.

Agapi Bell, 42, PTA president at James Boyd Intermediate School, was among a succession of residents who came to the microphone at Elwood Middle School and urged the board to resubmit the original budget to voters. Bell has three children enrolled in the district.

“If we as a community could rally together and convince people that this budget is thoughtful, I think we could do it,” Bell said, getting applause and cheers from many. About 120 people attended.

An Elwood parent group the past few days has collected petitions from more than 400 residents urging that the original budget be put up for such a revote. But several board members warned that could be risky because a second defeat would freeze next year’s tax levy at current levels and require further staff cuts that could drive the size of fourth-grade classes from 22 to 27. Busting the cap also would make residents ineligible next fall for state tax rebate checks of $130 per household.

“The math on that is daunting,” said board president Andrew Kaplan, referring to the difficulty of mustering the 60 percent supermajority needed for a cap override.

Several residents noted they had moved into the district due to the good reputation of its schools and worried that program cuts would put the district behind nearby districts such as Harborfields and Half Hollow Hills.

“Everywhere in the world, including Jamaica where I’m from, education is the key,” said Kevin Anderson, 38, a construction foreman and father of a kindergartner. “And here in America, the most powerful country in the world, we treat education like a third-world country.”

Parent Thomas Weiss, 51, a business software salesman and father of three students, agreed with the assessment of board leaders that resubmitting the same budget entailed risk.

“Look at the turnout — it’s weak,” Weiss said, looking around at the mostly vacant middle school auditorium.

The state’s cap law governs annual increases in district levies — that is, total revenue collected through local property taxation. Caps for individual districts vary widely, depending on factors such as exempted costs of interest payments on voter-approved bond issues for school renovations.

The annual statewide baseline cap is either 2 percent or the inflation rate from the previous calendar year, whichever is lower. This year’s baseline of 0.12 percent was the lowest by far because of low inflation, since the cap law took effect in the 2012-13 school year.

Elwood’s cap for 2016-17 was 0.66 percent, and the district projected an actual increase of 1.88 percent in the proposed budget that was rejected on May 17. Tuckahoe’s cap was 0.38 percent, and its actual projected hike in its initial spending plan was 2.48 percent.

Overall, 122 of 124 proposed district budgets passed in Nassau and Suffolk counties — a success rate of 98.4 percent. That rate was tied with 2009’s rate as the second-highest since universal one-day balloting began in 1996. The highest figure was last year’s, when only one budget failed.

Elwood’s vote of 1,132 to 805 represented a 58.4 percent majority, 30 votes shy of the number needed. District officials hope for a bigger voter turnout next month, as do many parents.

“Let’s ensure that the winner of the second vote is not apathy,” Andrew Kaplan, president of Elwood’s board, said last week.

Elwood is a midsized district with about 2,270 students in western Suffolk.

With Stacey Altherr

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