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Experts: School budget votes back Cuomo cap

Residents vote at Connetquot Elementary School in Islip

Residents vote at Connetquot Elementary School in Islip Terrace. (May 15, 2012) Credit: James Carbone

Results of school budget votes on Long Island represent a ringing endorsement of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's efforts to curb property taxes, regional analysts said Wednesday, though some expressed worry about the long-range impact on classroom quality.

All but two of 107 Long Island districts that stayed within their tax-levy limits won approval of budgets Tuesday with simple majority votes. That 98.1 percent success rate came close to the 99.2 percent statewide rate reported by the New York State School Boards Association.

"First of all, the taxpayers certainly supported the state's efforts to cap taxation. Invariably, the districts that failed exceeded the cap," said Lee Koppelman, director of the Center for Regional Policy Studies at Stony Brook University and a leading regional planner. "So I think the voters sent a message that was loud and clear."

The power of that message resounded in seven Long Island districts that failed to get a 60 percent "supermajority" to override the new state tax caps and saw their proposed spending plans defeated. A total of 17 had sought to override their districts' tax-levy limits.

Those districts -- five in Suffolk and two in Nassau -- now must decide whether to hold June 19 revotes on their original budgets or on revised versions. If they don't call second votes, or if they do and residents say "no" again, then tax collections in the 2012-13 school year will be frozen at current levels.

Districts in which attempts to exceed caps failed include Center Moriches, Comsewogue, East Islip, Elmont, Floral Park-Bellerose, Mount Sinai and Three Village.

The influence of tax caps was further illustrated by the fact that a majority of override attempts failed in central and western Long Island, where taxation is heaviest. Five of 10 local school systems that successfully overrode caps are located on the East End, where districts are relatively small and taxation is relatively light.

Koppelman pointed out that the caps had thwarted budget proposals that would have overridden tax limits even in "districts such as Mount Sinai and Three Village, which are not poor and have a history of supporting education."

Six of the seven districts where override efforts failed obtained majority votes, but less than the required 60 percent.

Statewide, the comparative rejection percentage was very close to that on Long Island: School budgets went down in 39.6 percent of districts that sought to go above their tax caps, the school boards association said.

School leaders whose override attempts failed insisted Wednesday that they had heard -- and accepted -- the public's message.

Neil Lederer, the interim schools superintendent in Three Village, said on the district's website that he likely would recommend lowering the district's tax increase to a capped limit of 2.99 percent. The district's original figure was 4.48 percent.

In Center Moriches, schools chief Russell Stewart said his district's tax request also is likely to be lowered from the original 4.56 percent figure. While he didn't offer a specific number, Stewart said the revision probably would require cuts in student services -- perhaps fewer sports teams or reduction of full-day kindergarten classes to half-day.

Joseph Rella, the Comsewogue superintendent, indicated that his district might revise its original 4.53 percent tax request down to a capped 2.75 percent. To do this, he added, Comsewogue would probably have to shift about half of its 2,000 elementary students between two school buildings -- to save money through more even distribution of classroom loads.

"There's no question we have to cut our costs -- the community is telling us that," Rella said.

Across the Island, a combination of tax caps and increased state aid prompted the region's 124 districts to hold next year's tax increases to an average 2.6 percent. That was the lowest hike since all districts began same-day voting in 1996.

A recent Newsday survey found that curbs on taxes are being accompanied, in many cases, by slightly larger classes or cuts in art, music, sports and other programs. Nearly 1,200 jobs -- including administrators, teachers and other staff -- also could be shed.

Some school officials and analysts warn that caps could erode academic quality in the years to come. They point to California, where average student scores have sunk near the bottom among states since voters in 1978 adopted a pioneering tax-cap measure known as Proposition 13.

"There are a lot of folks in California who once praised Proposition 13 and now curse it," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.

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