School taxes across Long Island are projected to rise less than 2 percent on average for the second straight year -- an unprecedented break for taxpayers that educators said also reflects districts' growing reluctance to challenge state caps on taxation.
Projections for the 2015-16 year show school taxes, which account for more than 60 percent of property taxes in Nassau and Suffolk counties, are due to rise about 1.88 percent to a total of more than $8.4 billion.
That's up slightly from this year's 1.83 percent increase, reflecting a slight rise in the rate of inflation, but tax growth is holding at its lowest levels in more than 40 years.
"What's happening is that districts are realizing the opportunity they have to provide some relief to homeowners, and they're doing that," said William Johnson, superintendent of Rockville Centre schools and a former president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.
The tax projections, calculated by Newsday, are based on figures for 122 of the Island's 124 districts. Estimates for 121 districts were collected by the state comptroller's office; one additional district, Valley Stream 13, provided Newsday with figures Thursday.
Two districts, Islip and New Suffolk, did not report numbers. Islip's superintendent, Susan Schnebel, said her system has delayed posting figures because the state has not yet told districts how much financial aid they can expect for the next school year.
Property tax caps, first imposed in the spring of 2012, continue to exert powerful pressure on tax growth. The state's basic limit is 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is lower. The rate applied for the 2015-16 school year will be 1.62 percent, according to the comptroller's office, above the 1.46 percent applied to the current year.
Guv: Perpetuate cap law
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who regards the tax-cap law as a major achievement of his administration, called earlier this year for a permanent extension of the statute, which expires in 2016. There was no word from Albany Thursday on whether a proposed extension has been included in ongoing budget negotiations between the governor and legislative leaders.
April 1 is the state's legal deadline for budget adoption.
A vote on the cap extension could come in June, when state lawmakers are likely to extend New York City rent control. The two items were a trade-off between city and suburban legislators when the cap law initially passed in 2011.
A Cuomo spokeswoman, Dani Lever, called the latest projections proof that the statewide cap is "working to tame out-of-control property tax increases."
Districts, under state law, can override caps only if 60 percent or more of local voters approve budgets. Districts whose override attempts fail in two consecutive votes -- the initial May vote and a June revote -- face tax freezes the following school year.
This year's school budget votes will be held May 19.
Only one local district, Elwood, indicated in its report to the comptroller's office that it might challenge the cap this spring. Elwood's superintendent, Peter Scordo, said Thursday through a spokeswoman that the district might drop that plan if it receives adequate financial aid from the state.
Another district, East Quogue, did not report whether it would attempt an override. Superintendent Les Black said his district's final decision also could hinge on school aid.
This year marks a dramatic drop in expected override attempts since 2012, when the cap law took effect. At that time, 16 districts in Nassau and Suffolk signaled their intent to pierce caps.
"I think most school board members realize that if you take that gamble, it's a really big risk," said Bob Vecchio, school board president in the William Floyd school district, which serves Shirley, Mastic and Mastic Beach.
Vecchio, who also serves on the board of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association, noted that caps have resulted in cuts to some popular school programs.
Last week, Nassau BOCES announced that it may have to close the Long Island High School for the Arts, the region's only public high school for aspiring actors, artists and musicians, as well as an affiliated program for students talented in science, math and technology.
Local districts restricted by tax caps have found it increasingly difficult to foot the bill for tuition money required to send their students to the BOCES schools.
Relief from high taxes
Many taxpayers have hailed caps as welcome relief from some of the highest property taxes in the nation.
"We can't have everything we want -- we have to cut somewhere," said Christine Retzlaff, a Freeport homemaker recently chosen to participate in a state-organized discussion of tax issues. She added she regrets cuts in programs such as those offered by the arts school.
Regional analysts cited several reasons for guarded optimism about next year's school budgets. Costs of district contributions to teacher pensions are down. State tax revenue is rising, making it more likely that Cuomo and legislative leaders will approve a major school-aid package if they can work out differences on other issues, such as reforms to the teacher evaluation law.
Cuomo has mentioned a potential state-aid increase of $1.1 billion, or 4.8 percent. State Assembly and Senate representatives have called for larger increases -- the most since the 2008 recession.
That leaves the question of how the money will be divided up.
Most Long Island school leaders have favored using the bulk of any extra money to compensate for cuts in aid in 2010-11 and 2011-12. The cuts, known as the Gap Elimination Adjustment, or GEA, fell most heavily on communities in Nassau and Suffolk and other relatively affluent suburban areas.
Opponents have responded that focusing on the GEA would shortchange New York City and poorer districts on the Island such as Amityville, Brentwood and Copiague, which are heavily dependent on a form of state assistance known as Foundation Aid. The formula for distributing such aid is weighted toward districts with students living in poverty.
Former Gov. Eliot Spitzer pushed through Foundation Aid in 2007, with an eye toward boosting assistance by $7 billion over the next four years. The extra money never materialized because of the economic downturn.
"It was a promise that New York State made, and that was to give additional funding to school districts that needed it most," said Lisa Tyson, director of the Long Island Progressive Coalition, a grassroots group focused on achieving greater economic equality. "That never happened."