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Long IslandEducation

LI school districts pitch budgets with billions at stake

Voters across Long Island go to the polls

Voters across Long Island go to the polls Tuesday, May 17, 2016, to approve or reject proposed budgets by the 124 districts in Nassau and Suffolk. Credit: Kings Park Central School District / Tim Eagen

School districts across Long Island hold votes Tuesday on more than $12.1 billion in proposed spending, with officials hoping to continue their eight-year success streak in winning overwhelming public approval.

Meanwhile, 384 candidates are seeking school-board seats across the region — 256 of them in contested elections.

Polls across Long Island generally open at 6 or 7 a.m. and close at 8 or 9 p.m., though districts on the East End tend to start their voting later and end earlier.

District budgets in Nassau and Suffolk counties have passed at a rate of better than 90 percent annually since 2008, as school officials curbed tax increases in response to an economic downturn and state caps on taxation.

Now, rates are down again. School administrators project that tax hikes for the 2016-17 school year will be at their lowest levels in more than 20 years — just 0.58 percent on average, or less than six-tenths of one percent.

Many districts, in addition, are applying an infusion of state financial aid to restoring or adding programs ranging from pre-engineering courses to varsity wrestling.

“It’s a significantly better year for programs — financially, it’s a spectacular year,” said Anne Marie Marrone Caliendo, assistant superintendent for finance and facilities in the Half Hollow Hills district.

For next year, Half Hollow Hills proposes strengthening its school-security force and adding after-school clubs districtwide. The district, at the same time, will hold its increase in local tax collections to 0.18 percent.

Island Trees, meanwhile, is adding a college-level course in Advanced Placement Human Geography, along with technology programs and intramural sports.

“We’re starting to build back program after many years of reductions,” said Superintendent Charles Murphy.

Nine districts out of a total 124 in the region are challenging state tax-cap restrictions by seeking voter “supermajorities” of 60 percent needed for an override. Last year, two districts tried to override the state tax cap and one failed.

Those districts include the mid-sized systems of Elwood, Harborfields and Islip in western Suffolk. Even those districts are keeping their projected tax hikes under 2 percent — a figure generally associated with the state’s cap.

Under law, the state’s baseline cap on annual hikes in taxation is either 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is lower. Next year’s baseline is 0.12 percent — virtually, a zero increase.

“How can districts like Elwood contend with a tax levy cap of less than 1 percent when we have numerous mandated expenses that continue to escalate?” Andrew Kaplan, president of the local school board, asked in a recent letter to community residents.

On the other side, taxpayer groups across the region question why most districts should raise spending and taxes at all in a period when enrollments generally are declining.

Six smaller districts in Suffolk’s East End are seeking bigger tax increases — among them, 8.52 percent in Greenport, 5.92 percent in Shelter Island and 5.83 percent in East Quogue. Taxation in the area is relatively low, and districts there in years past have won override votes more frequently than systems to the west.

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