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Port Washington holds forum Tuesday on school budget options

Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington

Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington is seen in this undated photo. Credit: Tara Conry

The Port Washington school district’s low tax cap and options for its proposed 2016-17 budget — including the possibility of a spending plan that pierces the limit — will be the focus of a community forum Tuesday night.

District officials said this year’s local 0.65 percent cap on any tax increase puts far too tight a clamp on the budget to accommodate growing enrollment. Port Washington, unlike many districts on Long Island, is seeing an increase in students rather than a decline.

“The idea of overriding the tax cap is pretty serious, and we need to know how the community feels about it,” board president Karen Sloan said in an interview last week..

The forum is scheduled for 8 p.m. Tuesday in the cafeteria at Paul D. Schreiber High School, just after trustees’ 7 p.m. business meeting.

Board members are considering several options. One proposed spending plan would stay within the 0.65 percent tax cap; another would exceed that limit but keep the increase under 2 percent. A more precise percentage on the latter option had not been calculated.

If the district asks voters to exceed the cap, the proposed budget would have to be approved by 60 percent of those voting rather than a simple 50-percent majority. School budget votes statewide are scheduled May 17.

Administrators and boards in many school systems across Long Island and the state expect to face difficult financial decisions because this year’s state-imposed cap is at a near-zero base.

The cap law, one of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s major initiatives, limits school districts and other local governments to basic annual tax increases of 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is less. Inflation has been unusually low because of falling oil prices and other economic trends, leading to the lowest tax cap since its imposition in 2012.

The statewide cap of 0.12 percent for 2016-17, announced last month by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, is down sharply from the current year’s baseline limit of 1.62 percent.

Each school district’s tax-levy limit varies, in part because of exemptions allowed under the law. Those include school renovation and construction costs and permissible portions of employee pension contributions and court-ordered judgments.

Sloan said the 5,451-student Port Washington school district has about 100 more children enrolled this year than last year, and some elementary class sizes have swelled to 28 students.

To keep up with the growing number of children, she said, the district needs to make about 19 hires — most in the instructional areas, with others being additional support and security staff.

“We have an increased enrollment and we are one of the only districts that does,” Sloan said. Holding the budget within the tax cap could lead to larger class sizes “and a change in how we deliver high-quality education. We don’t have any more options.”

There also could be cuts in textbooks and equipment, she said.

Port Washington’s 2016-17 school budget is projected to be $146,087,509. The final amount will be calculated after the district knows how much state aid it will receive — a figure that relies upon agreement on the state budget by Cuomo and the state legislature. The state budget, by law, must be passed by April 1.

Last May, district voters approved a $144,919,392 budget for the current school year. That spending plan carried an increase that was equal to the district’s then-cap limit of 2.38 percent.

The average Port Washington home is assessed at $1.7 million. Based on the projected budget, exceeding the cap to a levy of 1.9 percent would increase school taxes by about $222 a year for the average homeowner, district officials said. If the budget stays within the cap, school taxes would go up about $75 a year.

“People see that as significant,” Sloan said of the larger increase. “But to me, it is the quality of education in the community, so it is worth it.”

With the tax cap’s tight squeeze this year, districts will depend more on state financial assistance as they scramble to meet rising costs, including contractual salary hikes that average more than 2 percent.

Some educators said it is time to reconsider how some costs, such as exemptions and funding required by government mandates, figure into districts’ budgets.

“I’m not saying the tax cap should be changed, but exemptions should be revisited,” Plainview-Old Bethpage Superintendent Lorna Lewis, who also is president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents, said in an interview last week. “For example, the cost for special education — this is a huge cost that you have no control over. . . . They need to relook at some of the exemptions and find a way for them to maintain the tax-cap law, but give districts more flexibility in crafting their budgets.”

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