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Port Washington crowd vents at forum over school tax plan

Michelle Duran, a Port Washington resident and parent,

Michelle Duran, a Port Washington resident and parent, speaks during a community forum held by the school board, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016 at Paul D. Schreiber High School, to discuss options for the district's 2016-2017 budget. The district, like many across Long Island and across the state this year, is facing a tight state-imposed tax cap. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Residents packed a Port Washington school district community forum Tuesday night to comment on the district’s low tax cap and options for its proposed 2016-17 budget — including the possibility of a spending plan that pierces the state-imposed limit.

“We as taxpayers and parents have to live within our budget,” said Marybeth Tardera, a parent of five. “And I would appreciate it if the district lived within theirs.”

But Michelle Duran, who is co-president of the Manorhaven elementary school PTA and a parent of three, said she witnesses firsthand the squeeze on class sizes with growing enrollment. “We have no choice but to override the cap,” she said.

District officials said this year’s projected local 0.85 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 undergoing an increase in students rather than a decline.

The standing-room-only forum was held in the cafeteria at Paul D. Schreiber High School, just after the trustees’ business meeting.

Board members are considering several options. One proposed spending plan would stay within the 0.85 percent tax cap; another would exceed that limit but keep the increase under 2 percent.

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.

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

Some speakers urged the district to verify that students attending local schools are legitimate residents of the community and not coming from outside the district. Educators said they have checks in place.

The district needs to spend more than $ 1.5 million to make hires to deal with the growing enrollment — most in the instructional areas, with others being additional support and security staff.

Port Washington’s 2016-17 final budget 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 Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the state legislature. The state budget, by law, must be passed by April 1.

Exceeding the cap would increase school taxes by about $233 a year for the average homeowner, district officials said. If the budget stays within the cap, school taxes would go up about $99 a year.

The cap law, one of 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.

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