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Elwood, Tuckahoe school districts debate budgets

Elwood and Tuckahoe, the only two Long Island school districts that failed to pass budgets in the first round of voting, each appear headed for revotes on June 21.

School boards in the two systems have each scheduled 7:30 p.m. meetings on Monday, when they will try to hammer out final details of spending plans to be submitted to voters a second time for the 2016-17 academic year, officials said.

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

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.

Statewide results were nearly identical, with 98.5 percent of budgets approved in 655 districts reporting, according to analysis by the New York State School Boards Association. Budgets in 36 districts exceeding caps passed at a lower rate of 78 percent.

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,” said Andrew Kaplan, president of Elwood’s board.

Elwood is a midsized district with about 2,270 students in western Suffolk. Tuckahoe enrolls about 350 students on Suffolk’s South Fork.

Administrators in both districts said late last week that they still were working on budget recommendations for their boards and would be unable to release details until Monday.

Under state law, school systems can resubmit the same spending plans that voters initially rejected, or submit reduced versions that fall either above or below caps. District boards also have the option of skipping revotes and adopting “contingency” budgets with zero tax increases.

Districts also face tax freezes if they fail to win budget votes twice in a row.

Kaplan said, by way of illustration, that Elwood would have to cut $532,000 from its original $59,891,409 spending proposal, if it decided to keep within its cap. Many local parents said that makes them nervous, despite assurances from Kaplan and other officials that they will do everything possible to avoid cuts affecting classrooms directly.

“A half-million dollars could mean we’re cutting training for teachers, programs for students or security, or won’t be keeping the buildings as clean,” said Pam Elfreich, 39, of Greenlawn, an eyeglass designer and mother of a first-grader.

Elfreich and other parents appeared at an Elwood board meeting Thursday to argue against cuts in student services.

In Tuckahoe, the superintendent, Allan Gerstenlauer, who serves three days a week as chief administrator, said the district will save $244,000 from its proposed budget of $19,533,000. The spending plan fell well short of a supermajority with a vote of 146 to 145.

The savings, Gerstenlauer said, resulted from local voter approval of a five-year contract under which Tuckahoe will continue sending older students to nearby Southampton High School.

“The five-year deal bought us a discount that could not have been achieved, if we had to negotiate an annual contract,” the superintendent explained. He added that Tuckahoe, nonetheless, would have to cut additional dollars from its budget proposal, should board trustees decide to keep within the cap for the second round of balloting.

The state’s cap law governs annual increases in district levies — that is, total revenues collected through local property taxation.

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 due to low inflation, since the cap law took effect in 2012-13.

Caps for individual districts vary widely, depending on factors such as exempted costs of interest payments on voter-approved bond issues for school renovations.

Elwood’s cap for 2016-17 was 0.66 percent, and the district projected an actual increase of 1.88 percent in the first ballot round. Tuckahoe’s cap was 0.38 percent, and its actual projected hike was 2.48 percent.

Elwood’s meeting will be held in the auditorium of Elwood Middle School, 478 Elwood Rd. Tuckahoe’s meeting will be at the Tuckahoe School library, 468 Magee St., Southampton.

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