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Three school districts up for budget revotes July 28, with polls back open

The Riverhead school district's proposed $147,124,895 budget plan

The Riverhead school district's proposed $147,124,895 budget plan would raise spending 1.87% and taxation 2.21%. Credit: Composite photo: Newsday / Google Maps

Both the Riverhead and Uniondale school districts are making second attempts to pass budgets that voters rejected in mid-June, while Valley Stream 13 is offering a revised budget with smaller spending and tax hikes. 

Revotes are scheduled for July 28 in the three Long Island districts, and also a handful of others across the state. The second round of voting will represent a return to normalcy in one sense, with polling held in local school buildings during traditional hours, rather than by absentee balloting. 

During that unprecedented first round, budgets passed in 121 of 124 school systems in Nassau and Suffolk counties, most by lopsided majorities. Voter participation was the heaviest on record. 

Revotes represent gambles by Riverhead and Uniondale that enough local residents will come out in support of budgets this time to avoid the alternative, which is the imposition of "contingency" budgets. Under the state's strict tax-cap rules, any districts failing to win majority support in two consecutive votes face freezes in property taxation for the 2020-21 school year, along with potential cuts in teaching staffs and student services. 

School boards in Riverhead and Uniondale decided on this approach Tuesday night, with both boards noting, in almost identical resolutions, that their proposed tax increases would be held within cap limits. Both resolutions assert that the spending plans represent "the most advantageous and responsible" approach for local residents and students.

Uniondale's recycled $211,098,056 budget proposal would boost spending 1.82% and taxes 1.98%. Riverhead's proposed $147,124,895 plan would raise spending 1.87% and taxation 2.21%.

In recent years, Uniondale has faced increased resistance to higher taxes from some retirees who have moved into newly constructed adult communities in the area. Bob Zarro, a retired UPS delivery driver who lives in one such gated community, faulted the district for putting up the same defeated budget again, 

"They never give up," Zarro said, adding that he expected the great majority of his fellow residents to vote "no" on July 28.

In Riverhead, a growing number of voters complain the district has not done enough to check the housing records of newly arrived families, to make sure they are legal residents. Riverhead has experienced 20% enrollment growth in the past 10 years, and the high school reportedly is operating over capacity.

"Nobody's putting their foot down," said Susan Tocci, a resident of the Flanders section of the district and an outspoken critic of the system's management. 

Riverhead's interim superintendent, Christine Tona, said the district "vigorously" investigates residency issues, and has told community members that any specific concerns should be reported. 

Valley Stream 13, in contrast to Riverhead and Uniondale, is attempting to rally public support by cutting its original tax increase roughly in half and trimming more than $800,000 in proposed spending. The district's revised $54,423,813 budget, adopted by the local board June 23, would increase spending 2.51% and taxes 1%. 

Riverhead, Uniondale and Valley Stream 13 all are operating on contingency plans temporarily, pending the outcome of second votes.

Revoting will mark the end of an unparalleled budget season, in which the first round of voting was conducted entirely by mail-in ballot, as a safeguard against COVID-19 infection. About 2 million ballots were distributed automatically to voters in the Nassau-Suffolk region, resulting in a count that required three days to complete on June 18. 

On Friday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that the second and final round would be held in the traditional way at school polling stations, with absentee ballots available to voters who apply. The change in voting procedures reflects broader actions taken by the governor in recent weeks to reopen public facilities, using emergency powers available during the health crisis.

Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said Wednesday that his group appreciated the governor's provision of a revote, in a year when balloting was delayed due to the pandemic. 

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