District clerk Nadine Summers, inside a voting booth, demonstrates the...

District clerk Nadine Summers, inside a voting booth, demonstrates the voting procedure at Bay Shore High School. (May 17, 2011) Credit: Daniel Goodrich

School advocates said Wednesday that 90-percent-plus passing rates in statewide budget elections prove voters want to decide for themselves how education dollars are spent.

Their main point: Maintaining local control is better than the 2 percent property-tax cap proposed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to curb school spending.

"We already have a democratic process for capping property taxes, and it works pretty well," said Richard Iannuzzi, president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers union.

Iannuzzi, who taught in Central Islip, noted that school spending increases have slowed in recent years, both statewide and on Long Island. He called Cuomo's tax-cap plan "ill-conceived."

Not surprisingly, the governor drew a different conclusion from Tuesday's vote. Island residents approved all but five of 124 district budgets -- a 96 percent passage rate.

"I think the message is getting out," Cuomo said Wednesday. "We've reined in state spending. We now have to rein in local government and school spending. I think you saw that in a lot of these school district budgets."

On the Island, the average budget will rise less than the 2.3 percent inflation rate next year, as districts trim staffs and unions agree to salary concessions. But taxes will increase nearly 4 percent to make up for cuts in state school aid.

In the William Floyd district -- to cite the most dramatic example -- voters on Tuesday narrowly agreed to a 12.47 percent hike in next year's taxes. That's on top of an 8.53 percent increase this year.

School advocates cite voters' action as evidence that they will accept higher taxes to save music classes, sports and other popular programs. Residents would resent any state attempt to dictate how much they can spend, advocates add.

"Do they want to pay higher taxes? No, they don't," said Wendell Chu, superintendent of East Islip schools. "But when they're given a choice of higher taxes or cuts in programs, they're voting against cuts in programs."

Relatively few people actually voted, however. The 288,590 who participated on the Island on Tuesday represented less than 16 percent of voters in Nassau and Suffolk counties, according to April 1 figures on registered voters from the state Board of Elections.

Tax activists contend voters are discouraged by state rules that sharply limit the amount of money saved when school budgets are rejected.

"Most people don't even want to bother anymore," said Fred Gorman of Nesconset, organizer of a regional tax group, Long Islanders for Educational Reform. "You've got to listen to the governor -- he's absolutely right."

Cuomo's proposed 2-percent limit would kick in during the 2012-13 school year. The only costs exempted from the cap would be for construction and legal settlements. The cap could be overridden by vote of the local governing board and a 60 percent majority in a local referendum.

The Republican-led Senate has passed the governor's bill. The Assembly, controlled by Democrats, has not taken it up, but has promised to introduce its own version soon.

Some school officials such as Joseph Laria, who is Glen Cove's superintendent, think a cap might work, if exemptions are added for such costs as state-mandated pensions and health care. Laria notes that his colleagues managed to find savings when state fiscal pressures demanded it.

"Isn't it interesting," he said, "that when our backs were to the wall, we all tightened our belts and made do with less, and people supported our budgets."

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