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Long IslandEducation

LI school taxes to jump next year

Jennifer Scully speaks during a school board meeting.

Jennifer Scully speaks during a school board meeting. (April 25, 2011) Photo Credit: Newsday / Jessica Rotkiewicz

Long Island school taxes are due to jump next year by an average of nearly 4 percent -- outstripping the metropolitan area's current 2.3-percent inflation rate -- in a region where property taxes already are among the nation's highest.

The prospect of an even heavier lift for the Island's taxpayers comes even as school spending is set to rise more slowly -- an average 2.17 percent next year -- according to district-by-district "tax report cards" released Tuesday by the state. School taxes account for more than 60 percent of all property taxes.

One major reason school districts are boosting tax levies is to compensate for losses in state and federal aid. For next year, the Island's aid from Albany will decline by $206 million, including $89 million in federal jobs money that is not being renewed. Levies are total revenue raised through local property taxes.

Among the biggest projected tax hikes: 12.47 percent in the William Floyd district (the biggest), 8.99 percent in Seaford, 7.98 percent in Elwood and 7.73 percent in West Islip.

On the expense side, much of the increase stems from factors beyond the districts' direct control -- for example, rising contributions to state-run employee pension systems. To cover such expenses, many districts are imposing cuts in other areas -- eliminating teacher positions, enlarging classes and canceling programs ranging from full-day kindergartens to middle-school sports.

"Districts have done everything they can to keep expenditures down," said Henry Grishman, superintendent of Jericho schools and a past president of the State Council of School Superintendents. "But the flip side is that, with significant losses of state aid, districts have had no choice but to look at tax-levy increases of 4, 5 or 6 percent."

Taxpayer activists and other critics contend that districts could do much more to further pare expenses. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has noted that most school superintendents on the Island earn substantially more than his own $179,000 salary and has suggested that their pay be capped.

"There are going to have to be economies -- less hiring of friends at inflated salaries," said Fred Gorman of Nesconset, an organizer of an Islandwide taxpayer group, Long Islanders for Educational Reform.

On May 10, Gorman's group and others plan to rally in Albany in support of a statewide cap on property taxes. Cuomo has called for a 2 percent limit starting in the 2012-13 school year, and the GOP-dominated State Senate has approved that. Democrats who control the State Assembly have not yet taken action.

In many local districts, meanwhile, parents are mobilizing to save next year's student services. At Huntington High School, parents gathered outside the gym on Monday to sell pizza for $2 a slice.

Their goal: raising $36,000 to provide members of the school's Blue Devils Marching Band with money to perform at local football games and travel to competitions. The money was cut from the district's proposed $109 million budget for next year, which would raise overall spending less than 1 percent but increase taxes 3.5 percent.

"What we sort of took for granted for years has been taken out from under us," said one fundraising organizer, Martha Ironman, whose 10th-grader plays trumpet. "It's tough."

Elsewhere, parents and students wait to find out if their favorite programs will get the ax.

Patchogue-Medford, for example, has announced tentative plans to lay off as many as 58 teachers next year, a move that might mean cancellation of bilingual classes in two elementary schools. But local officials said that many jobs could be saved if the teachers' union would agree to new pay concessions.

Jennifer Scully, who has a kindergartner enrolled in a bilingual class at Medford Elementary School, said she's angry that a district with a 25 percent Hispanic enrollment would even consider canceling bilingual classes. Such classes enroll equal numbers of English- and Spanish-speaking students, with alternating lessons in the two languages. "Are we going to allow our children to be left behind and not be bilingual and not be able to compete in the global job market?" she said.

School officials say, however, that the program is a plus for the district and worth saving. "As far as the board is concerned, I'm reasonably sure the bilingual classes will not be eliminated," said Joe LoSchiavo, a board member.

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