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More Long Island school districts cutting spending, taxes

A first-grade class at the Archer Street School

A first-grade class at the Archer Street School in Freeport is seen on Monday, May 2, 2016. Spending for Long Island's public schools will accelerate during the coming year to more than $12.1 billion under budget proposals going to voters later this month. Credit: Steve Pfost

A growing number of Long Island school districts will trim spending and taxes — or at least, not raise them — under budget proposals to be submitted to voters later this month.

Property tax report cards released this week by the state Education Department show that 19 districts will either reduce tax levies — that is, total revenues collected through local taxation — or hold levies to current levels during the 2016-17 school year.

Another 11 districts will cut spending or hold it steady, while five districts will reduce both spending and taxes or maintain the status quo.

By way of comparison, seven districts trimmed taxes or held them level in the current year compared to last year, seven districts reduced spending or maintained the status quo, and three districts imposed cuts in both areas.

The state’s latest reports indicate that overall school spending will rise an average 1.9 percent next year in 121 districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties. The proposed hike is a bit higher than the 1.71 percent approved for 2015-16, but is still among the lowest ever.

The state did not include figures for the East End districts of New Suffolk, Sagaponack and Wainscott due to their small size.

Overall tax levies will increase 0.58 percent on average, to a total of $8.4 billion. The percentage increase is by far the lowest since single-day voting began 20 years ago, and is also lower than the 0.73 percent projected by districts in preliminary reports submitted to the state two months ago.

In comparison, local districts raised tax levies an average 1.69 percent for the 2015-16 school year — a figure that, until now, was the lowest on record.

Voting on budgets and board candidates is scheduled for May 17, both on the Island and statewide.

The combination of accelerated spending and decelerated taxation can be traced largely to two factors: Statewide tax caps, linked to low inflation, are forcing districts to keep their tax levies down. Meanwhile, growing state financial assistance from Albany — $155 million in new operating aid for Long Island alone next year — allows districts to spend more on priority programs.

Neither school leaders nor taxpayer representatives are entirely happy with the current situation.

At least nine districts have announced that they will challenge their caps in coming school elections, by seeking the 60 percent voter “supermajorities” required to override limits on taxation. Those districts include three mid-sized systems in western Suffolk County — Elwood, Harborfields and Islip — and six small districts on the county’s East End.

Elwood’s board president, Andrew Kaplan, said the decision to seek more tax money was driven largely by a feeling that the district’s 0.657 percent cap was simply too tight.

“I respect the tax cap, but something has to be done,” Kaplan said.

Taxpayer groups assert, on the other hand, that still more districts should join in the movement toward cutting taxes, especially during a period when enrollments are shrinking in most communities.

“It’s great that they’re holding down taxes,” said Pat Nicolosi, president of the Elmont East End Civic Association, a local taxpayer organization. “But people are still leaving Long Island. Young people can’t afford to buy homes, and older people still can’t afford the taxes.”

School taxes account for more than two-thirds of the average homeowner’s tax bill. Nassau and Suffolk continue to rank among the nation’s most highly taxed counties.

Tax growth has slowed markedly over the past seven years, however — initially, in response to an economic downturn, and then to the caps that were first imposed in 2012.

New York State’s cap law holds annual increases in taxation to either 2 percent or the past calendar year’s inflation rate, whichever is lower.

Inflation was unusually low in 2015, so next year’s statewide baseline cap will be 0.12 percent. Caps for individual districts vary widely due to exemptions for certain types of spending — notably, interest payments on voter-approved bonds used for school renovations.

“It came together, because it had to come together,” said Johanna Testa, president of Miller Place’s school board. Testa referred to her district’s commitment to residents not to exceed its tax cap.

Miller Place’s proposed $70.6 million budget will lift spending 0.85 percent. The district’s projected $44.8 million tax levy represents a 0.14 percent reduction.

Freeport, to cite another example, expects to cut taxes next year by a little less than one-tenth of a percentage point. This will mark the second consecutive year — and the fourth time in nine years — that the district has taken such action, local officials said.

“It’s certainly good news for the community,” said Kishore Kuncham, now in his seventh year as Freeport’s superintendent. “But it’s not something we can sustain on a long-term basis.”

Kuncham added that elementary class sizes have risen in recent years, as Freeport experienced an influx of immigrant students, including about 125 unaccompanied minors. The district, which enrolls about 7,000 students in all, hopes to start reducing class sizes next year, and also to add more advanced elective courses at its high school.

Freeport’s proposed $170.1 million budget would raise spending 1.8 percent. The projected $87.1 million tax levy would dip 0.09 percent.

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