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Long Island school leaders predict budget approvals in Tuesday vote

Students in Melanie Holroyd's sixth-grade class at Longwood

Students in Melanie Holroyd's sixth-grade class at Longwood Middle School in Middle Island use Chromebooks during a Google Classroom science lesson on cells on Tuesday, March 21, 2017. Credit: Barry Sloan

Public school leaders are predicting “yes” votes across Long Island on Tuesday, when local residents weigh in on budgets totaling $12.4 billion region-wide.

One major factor cited in the expectation is that proposed increases in school-tax levies average just 1.73 percent for 2017-18 — well within the 2 percent level that has become a sort of statewide litmus test of reasonable taxation.

The state’s cap limit on taxation, now in its fifth year of enforcement, limits annual increases to 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is lower. The state baseline cap for 2017-18 is 1.26 percent.

Only one district on Long Island is challenging its tax-cap limit: tiny New Suffolk on the North Fork. District officials there said they need extra money to cover tuition bills for an unexpected number of students who will be sent to nearby Southold, either because they are too old to attend New Suffolk’s lone elementary school or because they require special instruction for non-English speakers.

Budgets that stay within cap limits require a simple majority for passage. Those that pierce the limit must be approved by 60 percent of those voting; a cap-piercing budget that is rejected is submitted in a June revote, either as-is or adjusted to meet the cap.

School taxes account for about two-thirds of homeowners’ total tax bills in Nassau and Suffolk counties, where rates rank among the nation’s highest.

A total 124 districts across the region hold budget votes Tuesday. Fifty-nine of those systems have contested school board elections scheduled as well.

“I think we’ll have a very high rate of passage,” said B.A. Schoen of Baldwin, who represents Nassau County on the governing board of the New York State School Boards Association. “The state tax cap is effective in keeping the levy low, and fortunately our costs have been reasonable.”

Schoen noted that most districts also are managing to keep costs down because their enrollment numbers either are declining or flat. He acknowledged, however, that an influx of new students is putting financial pressures on a growing number of systems, among them some of the region’s neediest.

Hempstead, for example, has reported plans to hire 46 additional staff in the next school year, largely to handle enrollment growth. Brentwood expects to hire 14 more instructors for bilingual courses or to teach English as a Second Language.

“Every single day, the parents are out to register — it’s unbelievable!” said Levi McIntyre, superintendent of Brentwood schools, the region’s biggest system.

Brentwood, which enrolls more than 19,400 students now, expects 19,800 next year.

Along with new hiring, most schools plan at least modest expansion of student services and programs, an annual Newsday survey found. Popular additions include college-level Advanced Placement courses, Chromebook laptop computers and iPad electronic tablets.

All this is being funded with the help of state aid that will total $3.1 billion in the two-county region in 2017-18, up 4.1 percent from current levels.

The combination of low tax increases and extra spending should bode well for the coming school year, administrators said. Many added, however, that they are managing money carefully as a hedge against possible future losses of federal aid.

A budget deal reached last month between Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state lawmakers authorizes Albany to make midyear cuts in spending, including school aid, in response to any federal cuts of $850 million or more. Cuomo has repeatedly warned of potential reductions under President Donald Trump’s administration.

Trump and Congress recently agreed on a federal budget extending through Sept. 30 that lessens the likelihood of cuts in the near future. But local school officials still are keeping their eyes open.

“The governor has authority to make cuts in the budget language, so we know that’s real,” said Charles Russo, the East Moriches schools chief and president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association.

As usual, some of the most contentious school board races revolve around issues that go beyond spending and taxation.

Massapequa board candidates, for example, are divided over a district plan to move sixth-graders next fall from elementary schools to Berner Middle School. The district says the shift would provide sixth-graders with a richer curriculum that would include daily lessons in foreign language, and also would be cost-efficient.

Some parents have protested that sixth-graders do better educationally and developmentally in the current K-6 arrangement. Parent leaders said more than 3,000 opponents signed an online petition against the move last year, shortly before the school board approved the shift of students in a 3-2 vote.

Now, the planned change is an election issue in Massapequa. Three candidates are running for two at-large seats there.

Two candidates, incumbent Gary Baldinger and Janice Talento, support the sixth-grade transfer and are campaigning as a team. A challenger, Brian Butler, opposes the change.

Butler, 39, a real estate investor with three children attending local schools, said the district should have heeded the size of the petition movement.

“The district thumbed their nose at their own community,” Butler stated. “This is unacceptable.”

Baldinger, 53, is a former professional football player, now a medical sales executive, with four children who attended or are attending local schools. Talento, 55, co-owns a company that assists Medicaid dentists with state incentives, and has three children enrolled locally.

Baldinger voted for the sixth-grade change as a board member. Both he and Talento endorse the idea that the change would be beneficial, both academically and financially.

“The kids of today, they’re ready for it,” said Talento, referring to an expanded sixth-grade curriculum.

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