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LI schools will use extra aid to expand programs, hire staff

Art teacher Warren Jacobson works with students at

Art teacher Warren Jacobson works with students at Plainview-Old Bethpage / John F. Kennedy High School in Plainview on May 10, 2016. The district plans to add a ninth period next year, giving most students more time for elective courses. Credit: Ed Betz

Many Long Island school districts plan to expand student programs in the 2016-17 academic year, from robotics classes and Advanced Placement seminars to after-school clubs and sports teams, as they seek to recover from cuts imposed after the 2008 economic crash.

A Newsday survey of budget plans from the 124 districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties found that at least 71 of those systems intend to launch new programs, hire new staff or both during the coming school year.

Another 38 districts indicated they will maintain existing services, while 11 expect to reduce services, staff or both. Four districts did not respond to Newsday’s questions regarding their plans in those areas.

Islandwide, school systems next year will boost spending to a combined total of nearly $12.2 billion, up 1.9 percent. At the same time, collections of local property taxes, known as levies, will rise to $8.4 billion, just 0.58 percent, — the smallest hike in more than 20 years.

The region’s school leaders said a boost in state financial aid of more than 6 percent helped pay for new programs and compensate for the lack of local tax revenue. Taxpayer representatives responded that much of the program expansion appeared to have been financed by districts’ cash reserves, which critics called excessive.

Voting on school board candidates and budgets, which account for more than 60 percent of property taxes, is scheduled for Tuesday across the state.

Low taxation rates were forced on districts by state cap limitations that are the tightest ever. Nine systems on the Island will challenge those caps in Tuesday’s elections by seeking the 60-percent voter majorities required for overrides.

The districts include Elwood, Harborfields and Islip in western Suffolk, and six smaller systems on the East End.

Some districts have decided they can stay within their caps in 2016-17 while also catching up with neighboring systems in terms of course offerings and other services.

Plainview-Old Bethpage, for example, proposes to lengthen the high school’s daily class schedule from eight periods to nine — a timetable that has become the regional norm in recent years. West Islip plans to restore nine-period days at its two middle schools.

“Most of our competitive schools have long had nine-period days, and this offers our students more opportunities,” said Lorna Lewis, the Plainview-Old Bethpage superintendent. “They’ve been trying to do this for over 20 years, and just never been able to do it.”

More state aid coming

Lewis, who is president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents, said an agreement by Albany lawmakers to increase next year’s state aid to the region by $155 million was a significant factor in districts’ planned expansions.

She added, however, that she and many of her colleagues worry the state’s generosity may not continue through 2017-18. “It’s not an election year,” the schools chief noted.

One particular break for the Island’s schools in the coming school year is the state’s repayment of Gap Elimination Adjustment money, or GEA. That was financial aid cut from districts’ revenue in 2009-10 and 2010-11 as part of efforts to close a massive state budget deficit.

Schools in Nassau and Suffolk counties will be among the biggest winners under the GEA restoration plan. But the Island’s school leaders, looking ahead, pointed to another financial factor that could affect their balance sheet negatively: Distribution of state financial assistance in future years probably will shift to a “foundation aid” formula, which tends to drive money to New York City and other urban areas.

“It has never worked well for Long Island,” said Julie Lutz, chief operating officer of Eastern Suffolk BOCES and a leading analyst of regional school financial trends.

Where extra funds would go

Plans for additional spending in 2016-17 are as varied as districts themselves.

Brentwood expects to reopen a student television studio next year. East Rockaway wants to offer a wrestling team in a joint venture with the Rockville Centre district. Half Hollow Hills plans to sponsor computer-coding clubs at its five elementary schools.

Not surprisingly, courses oriented toward technology are growing in popularity.

The Jericho district said it will add two classes in robotics for high school seniors, and Island Trees will expand its middle school robotics program from one class to two. Both districts also plan to provide students with new Chromebooks, the lightweight laptops handy for Internet usage.

Monica Navarrete, co-president of a parent-teacher-student organization at Island Trees High School, said her 11th-grader son is “beyond thrilled” over news that he and classmates will receive Chromebooks.

“Technology — for us, it opens up a lot of doors,” Navarrete said of the district’s laptop purchases. “It just puts all this amazement at their fingertips. Also, it’s a lot lighter than having binders in backpacks.”

Islandwide, more districts are starting up Advanced Placement Capstone programs. The new curriculum, sponsored by the Manhattan-based College Board, is intended to provide students with more comprehensive college-level studies than they can obtain by taking individual AP courses alone.

The Hewlett-Woodmere district was the first on the Island to offer the AP Capstone program last year. In 2016-17, another 15 districts in the region will join in, including East Islip, Huntington, Massapequa and Plainview-Old Bethpage, according to College Board representatives.

AP Capstone works like this: Students in 10th or 11th grade take a yearlong course, AP Seminar, in which they examine major issues — for example, the question of whether national security is more important than a citizen’s right to privacy. The following year, students take another course, AP Research, which culminates in a written thesis of about 5,000 words.

AP Capstone represents College Board’s attempt to compete with the International Baccalaureate program, a comprehensive set of college-level courses that students take while in high school. Nine districts on the Island offer IB classes.

Like the International Baccalaureate system, AP Capstone awards a diploma to those who successfully complete the seminar and research courses along with four other AP courses in specific subjects. One AP Capstone advantage, supporters said, is that it is less expensive for districts than the IB program.

“We jumped at the opportunity,” said Lucille Iconis, the Massapequa superintendent, referring to College Board’s approval of her district’s program. “It makes it a lot more affordable for everyone involved.”

Tax groups eye accounting

Not everyone on the Island is happy over schools’ renewed buildup of courses and other student services. Taxpayer groups have contended that the expansion, conducted in the face of tight state tax caps, demonstrates that districts have managed to pile up cash reserves that now are being budgeted for new programs and staff.

Since 2014, the state comptroller’s office has issued more than a dozen critical audit reports, citing what it has described as excess reserves held by individual districts across the region.

“The fact that they’ve done this relatively easily shows that a lot of districts have operated with bloated budgets for an extended length of time,” said Andrea Vecchio, a founding member of Long Islanders for Educational Reform, a regional taxpayer organization.

Many school officials have responded that they are shifting reserves to next year’s budgets, as they have in the past, to hold down taxation. Officials added that they have negotiated with employee unions to pare down pay raises from pre-recession levels and to increase employees’ contributions to health insurance premiums.

“That’s money we’re getting back — that’s a concession,” said Joseph Dragone, assistant superintendent for business in the Roslyn district.

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