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New Suffolk school board says piercing tax cap preserves services

Leaders of the New Suffolk school district, the only Long Island school system to propose piercing the state’s property tax cap, said Tuesday night that doing so is necessary to preserve key educational services.

During a public hearing at New Suffolk School, board members said they were reluctant to exceed the tax cap but an influx of new students, a roughly $107,000 deficit and higher-than-anticipated special-education costs left them no other choice.

“We think it’s a reasonable approach because if we don’t do it, then this school is going to start sliding backwards,” school board president Tony Dill said. “We’ve worked very hard for a number of years to build up things to where we think we’re providing a good, solid foundation for kids.”

New Suffolk has proposed raising the tax levy by 6.5 percent, exceeding the state’s 3.4 percent limit for the district, which educates just 27 students. New Suffolk residents will vote on the budget on May 16.

Approving the $1.1 million budget requires 60 percent approval, rather than a simple majority needed in districts that do not pierce the cap.

New Suffolk, which operates a single schoolhouse for students from prekindergarten through sixth grade, pays tuition for older students’ education in the Southold school district. The average cost to the New Suffolk district is about $20,000 per student.

The deficit is largely the result of six students entering the district last summer and fall, well after the year’s budget had passed, officials have said.

Officials noted that they were reluctant to pierce the cap, which raises taxes more than $25,000 over the state limit.

Special-education costs for the district rose to $170,000 from about $40,000 over the past five years, Dill said.

Dill spoke to five residents who attended the budget hearing.

Shannon Simon, a resident of the district for nearly 30 years, said after the meeting that “this is a great school, and it needs support.” She said that if the budget fails, “the school itself will suffer. They’ll have to take the money out of somewhere.”

Martha Baker, a longtime resident, said afterward that she felt “strongly that this budget gets passed. . . . We need this school in this town.”

Before the meeting, the school district’s principal and Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Gallagher said the new budget reflects “an influx of students” into the district, which is expected next year to have an enrollment of 29 students.

Two elementary-aged children who spoke mostly Spanish could not attend district schools when they moved into the district last fall because of a lack of English language support services, officials said. The students were sent to Southold.

The New Suffolk district has begun training staff to teach English as a Second Language, but they won’t be fully certified by the beginning of the school year.

The school board voted 3-0 at an April 18 meeting to pierce the cap.

“We can’t control people moving into the district in the summer and saying we’d like to go to secondary school,” Gallagher said. “Other districts have the same situation, but they usually have a bit more cash on hand to manage it. We’re just so small, we don’t have those kind of funds.”

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