Good Morning
Good Morning
Long IslandEducation

All budgets pass in history-making school vote on Long Island

Egan Malloy, 2, of North Bellmore, went with

Egan Malloy, 2, of North Bellmore, went with his mom, Christine, as she voted on the North Bellmore school district's budget at Newbridge Road Elementary School in North Bellmore on Tuesday, May 16, 2017. Credit: Barry Sloan

School budget approvals across Long Island hit a history-making high Tuesday, as voters in the region’s 124 districts endorsed a combined spending total of $12.4 billion.

Westbury was the last district to report budget passage, at 3 a.m. Wednesday, following what officials called a careful review by legal counsel and the district clerk to ensure accuracy. The announced vote on that system’s $145.2 million spending plan was 861 for “yes” and 553 for “no.”

It marked the first time since single-day voting began on the Island in 1996 that every district’s spending plan in Nassau and Suffolk counties won enough votes for adoption.

In recent years, approval rates have hit 98 percent, and even 99 percent — but never 100 percent.

“We have a new milestone, as it appears,” said Lorraine Deller, longtime executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association. “Our voters seem to understand that, despite tight budgets, investment in their schools continues to be a priority.”

While voter turnout was light in many communities, margins of success often were wide, Deller noted.

In the Sayville district, the spending plan passed 1,542 votes to 279; Long Beach, 1,967 to 589; Harborfields, 1,224 to 249; Wyandanch, 306 to 79.

Regional school leaders speculated that Tuesday’s results stemmed largely from the fact that projected tax increases for the 2017-18 school year were only 1.73 percent on average throughout the region. State tax caps, first imposed in 2012-13, have kept rate hikes relatively low.

The tiny New Suffolk district was the only one on the Island to challenge its tax-cap limit this year, and it won passage of its spending plan handily. The district’s voters approved its $1.1 million budget by a margin of 52 votes to 15.

District officials there said they need extra money to cover tuition bills for an unexpected number of students who will be sent to nearby Southold, because either they are too old to attend New Suffolk’s lone elementary school or they require special instruction for non-English speakers.

Budgets that stay within cap limits require a simple majority for passage. Those that pierce the limit must be approved by 60 percent of those voting.

New Suffolk’s approval came in at nearly 79 percent.

“We’re gratified with the community’s support,” principal and chief administrative officer Christopher Gallagher said Tuesday night in celebrating the budget’s passage. “They understood the situation, and they supported that, and we’re gratified for that.”

Gallagher said the budget “enables us to maintain our programs. . . . We think we have an appropriate program at the elementary school. We were concerned we’d have to make cutbacks to that program if this budget proposal did not pass. We don’t anticipate having to do this again.”

David Gamberg, the Greenport superintendent, spoke of that district’s “healthy margin” of approval in the budget vote.

“I think we’re going to see that trend continue tonight,” he predicted before many polls had closed Tuesday night. “Districts are more than aware of what makes a responsible budget.”

Greenport’s $18.3 million budget passed, 235 votes to 55, and a special proposition establishing a capital-reserve fund in that district also sailed through.

Gamberg’s administration illustrates efforts to operate more efficiently. The superintendent doubles as schools chief in nearby Southold, where the budget also was approved.

The state’s cap on taxation limits annual increases to 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is lower. The state baseline cap for 2017-18 is 1.26 percent.

Elation over Tuesday’s results was tempered by what educators see as at least a remote risk of mid-year cuts in state and federal financial assistance.

A budget deal reached last month between Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state lawmakers authorizes Albany to make mid-year cuts in spending, including school aid, in response to any federal cuts of $850 million or more. Cuomo has repeatedly warned of potential reductions under President Donald Trump’s administration.

Trump and Congress recently agreed on a federal budget extending through Sept. 30 that lessens the likelihood of cuts in the near future. But local school officials still are keeping their eyes open.

On Tuesday, many supportive voters voiced mixed feelings at local polls. School taxes account for about two-thirds of homeowners’ tax bills, and the Island’s rates still rank among the nation’s highest, despite cap restraints.

“It’s kind of tough,” said Stephen Matuszak, a retired building-supply worker who was walking his dog outside Massapequa Park’s McKenna Elementary School after voting. “You need good teachers, but it seems the school hierarchy is paid pretty high.”

Matuszak said he supported the Massapequa district’s proposed $194.6 million budget, which carries a tax-levy increase of 2.38 percent. The spending plan passed, 3,159 votes to 1,116.

Of the 124 districts holding budget votes across Nassau and Suffolk counties, 59 had contested school board elections as well, and 62 put up special ballot propositions.

Outside Great Neck South High School in the afternoon, dozens of people voted on a proposed $223.3 million budget, board candidates, and the second attempt to pass a multimillion-dollar bond proposal for infrastructure repairs and renovations at schools throughout the system.

After voters rejected an $85.9 million bond issue in February, the district was trying again with a $68.3 million revised bond that cut $17.56 million in costs. The item shelved a plan for an early childhood center at the district’s Clover Drive facility.

Officials in February acknowledged that the bond had “polarized” the community.

Jill Madenberg, 47, the mother of one Great Neck South graduate and a teenager who is a student there, was more sympathetic to the district’s position.

“I think that it’s easy to get caught up in very small aspects of it, but on a large scale, I’m confident that the board is looking toward our future and looking to protect and rehabilitate the infrastructure of our schools,” Madenberg said.

The Great Neck budget passed, 6,772 votes to 1,607, and the bond issue was approved, 6,299 votes to 1,925.

“This election brought out some rather heated exchanges, and we will now need to seek ideas and ways to work to bring our community together again,” school board president Barbara Berkowitz said in a statement issued after 1 a.m. early Wednesday.

Latest Long Island News