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Proposed school-tax hike average is lowest in four decades

Middle Country School Superintendent Roberta Gerold in a

Middle Country School Superintendent Roberta Gerold in a 7th grade math class at Dawnwood Middle School on March 20, 2014. Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

Proposed school tax hikes on Long Island are dropping below 2 percent on average for the first time in more than 40 years -- reflecting the impact of low inflation and state "cap" restrictions entering their third year of enforcement.

Local tax collections known as levies are due to rise an average 1.83 percent for the 2014-15 academic year in districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties, according to preliminary data. Newsday calculated local and regional rates based on figures supplied by the state comptroller's office.

The planned low tax hikes contrast with the current school year's average 3.27 percent increase, as well as jumps of 7, 8 or even 9 percent recorded during the economic boom years preceding the Great Recession.

School taxes account for more than 60 percent of all property taxes collected on the Island.

"This is going to be a good year for the taxpayers -- there's no doubt about it," said Joseph Dragone, assistant superintendent for business in the Roslyn district and an educator with 46 years' experience on the Island.

Dragone said the projected average 1.83 percent increase Islandwide -- if it holds up, as he expects -- would be the lowest he has witnessed during his career.

The latest school-tax figures, which would rise an average 2.01 percent statewide, illustrate the impact of the state's tax-cap law, adopted in 2011 with a big push from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

The law imposed a basic limit of 2 percent -- or the inflation rate, whichever is lower -- on increases in tax collections, with exemptions for certain expenses such as employee pension costs. Districts can override caps only with consent of 60 percent or more of voters. Each district's cap limit varies because of a number of factors, including pension and voter-approved construction costs.

The inflation rate applied for 2014-15 school taxes is 1.46 percent, according to the comptroller's office.


Cuomo: Tax cap 'working'

Cuomo hailed the low tax figures Thursday while plugging his latest proposal to provide qualifying homeowners with tax rebates for two years, provided their school districts and other local governments keep within cap limits and achieve greater cost efficiencies. Some state lawmakers, who would have to approve the plan, say it is overly complex and would be hard to enforce.

"School property taxes on Long Island are projected to grow by the lowest levels in modern history, proving once again that the property tax cap is working," Cuomo said in a prepared statement. "New Yorkers still pay too much in property taxes -- Nassau County has the second-highest property taxes in the country -- and that's why we need the Legislature to put homeowners first, and pass our plan to deliver real relief to people across the state."

Limited tax revenue, though a relief for many homeowners, cause headaches for school administrators. Many district officials already have told residents they face a squeeze next year between holding down taxes while expanding instructional services needed to prep students for lessons and tests aligned with rigorous Common Core academic standards.


Need seen for more state aid

School leaders in Nassau and Suffolk counties insisted the state must provide more financial aid to compensate for lost local revenue. Many criticized the governor, whose budget set a modest 2.6 percent increase in operating aid for the Island's schools, and the region's legislative delegation for not coming across with more money.

"It really was a surprise to us -- a great disappointment," said Roberta Gerold, president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association and chief of the Middle Country district. Gerold was especially critical of a Senate bill that allots substantial funds as tax credits for donations to nonpublic schools.

David Feller, president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents, added that the latest fiscal crunch underscores Albany's crucial influence.

It "certainly points to the fact that state aid has taken an increasingly important role in paying for the expenses that school districts are facing," said Feller, who is superintendent in North Merrick.

State lawmakers said they are doing their best to meet the often-competing financial needs of schools on Long Island, in New York City and elsewhere in the state. Legislators added that they are on schedule to pass a statewide school-aid package along with the rest of the state's budget by the April 1 deadline -- a contrast to the legislative chaos of a few years ago.

State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), chairman of his chamber's Education Committee, said the Senate's proposal would go well beyond the governor's plan in reducing the so-called Gap Elimination Adjustment, or GEA, an accounting mechanism introduced in 2009-10 to help the state cut a budget deficit then estimated at $10 billion.

School officials on the Island have targeted the GEA because it reduced the region's aid disproportionately compared with other regions.

Flanagan took particular exception to Gerold's assertion that state senators, who traditionally have advocated strongly for the Island's schools, did not appear to be doing so this year.

"She either did not know what she's talking about, or she is not telling the truth," Flanagan said.


6 districts eye cap overrideSix districts on the Island, including Baldwin, Sayville, Valley Stream Central and West Babylon, have announced their intent to seek voter overrides of tax caps. At least eight other districts have not yet revealed their plans.

The tiny East End district of Bridgehampton has pushed furthest, with a projected 12.65 percent tax hike, according to figures posted by the state comptroller. The district's superintendent, Lois Favre, did not respond to Newsday's request for an explanation earlier this week.

Local school officials who did respond cited the need to save existing programs, restore services cut in prior years or conserve dwindling reserve funds.

Baldwin superintendent James Scannell said he hopes to restore eight programs ranging from the high school musical to middle school sports. Walter Schartner, the Sayville schools chief, said a cap override there is needed to maintain current services; the district's choices will be outlined in greater detail at an April 1 public forum, he said.

"You cannot increase mandates, cut funding and not expect tax levies to go up," Schartner said in a written statement.

Les Black, the East Quogue superintendent, said his district faces potential cuts in music, physical education and full-day kindergarten, along with staff losses, if it does not obtain an override. The district plans a final decision on its budget April 8.

"All those things would be in jeopardy," Black said.Education leaders noted that districts began paring back tax requests after the recession began, and even before the imposition of statewide caps. Michael Borges, executive director of the New York State Association of School Business Officials, said that recent containment of school spending and taxes demonstrated that district boards, superintendents and business officials are "responsible stewards of public funds."

Others contended that caps have raised economizing to a whole new level.

"It's hard to argue that they didn't work," said Michael Dawidziak, a Sayville-based political consultant who works mostly with Republicans. "I'm sure school districts are going to say they would have gotten to this point on their own. But most people don't believe in coincidences."

With Michael R. Ebert

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