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School budget hikes across LI held to record lows for 2015-16

Students listen and take notes during class on

Students listen and take notes during class on May 1, 2013. Credit: Heather Walsh

Public school spending hikes across Long Island would be held to record lows in the 2015-16 school year, according to district-by-district "tax report cards" the State Education Department released Thursday.

Proposed budgets across the Island's 124 districts would rise an average 1.69 percent to fund the coming school year, totaling $11.9 billion regionwide. Nassau County would see an average 1.71 percent increase, while Suffolk's hike would be an average 1.67 percent.

School tax collections, meanwhile, would grow just 1.71 percent on average -- a figure even lower than the 1.88 percent estimate put out by the state comptroller's office last month. Nassau's increase in tax collections, known as levies, would average 1.45 percent and Suffolk's would average 1.99 percent.

School finance experts cited a combination of factors, including reduced pension costs and increases in state financial aid, for the decline in spending projections -- by far the lowest since one-day voting on school budgets started statewide in spring 1996. This year's vote will be held May 19.

In the coming school year, districts will be required to contribute payments to the New York State Teachers Retirement Fund equivalent to 13.25 percent of salaries, down from this year's 17.5 percent. The lower costs stem from the general economic recovery of the past several years, especially in the stock market, which helped rebuild pension reserves depleted in the aftermath of the 2008 market crash.

"Every district had a tremendous benefit from that, even if they used some of the savings to restore programs and the rest to relieve taxpayers," said Joseph Dragone, assistant superintendent for business in the Roslyn district.

Many districts are reporting that if proposed budgets are approved, they expect to retain all student services offered this year -- and in some cases to restore programs cut during the Great Recession.


Adding teachers, coaches

The William Floyd budget, for example, would add 20.5 teaching positions and more coaches, while also restoring the post of a fine arts coordinator overseeing music and art. Roosevelt would increase its staff by two dozen teachers and paraprofessionals, along with four security guards, to help cope with recent enrollment increases. The Middle Country district would add a full-day prekindergarten class and hire several teachers to bolster instruction for students speaking limited English.

Paul Casciano, the William Floyd superintendent, credited reduced spending on some budget lines along with a 2.93 percent hike in state aid.

"That was a big help," he said. "When the state is more sensitive to your needs and provides more state aid, it also helps the residents."

In East Hampton, superintendent Richard Burns singled out the decrease in contributions to the teachers retirement fund as producing "significant savings." He also noted the district has worked to become more efficient, centralizing some purchasing and trimming positions through attrition.

"It was rough the last three years," he said. "We cut over $5 million, and we don't have a big budget. This was the first time we didn't have to face that dilemma."

Middle Country's schools chief, Roberta Gerold, said the outlook for next year is a relief after several years of reducing programs, including elementary library services and both music and art at the kindergarten level.

"We're glad that we're at that point where we can retain what we've got," said Gerold, who also is president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association.

In addition to lower pension costs, districts noted an extra $157 million in state aid came to the Island's schools as part of a $22 billion package approved earlier this month by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the State Legislature.

That pledge of additional support, however, came with a caveat: School districts could lose their aid increases if they and their teachers unions do not revise local job-evaluation guidelines -- known as Annual Professional Performance Review, or APPR, plans -- and have them approved by the Education Department by a Nov. 15 deadline.

The situation is further complicated by state officials' recent statements that they might extend that deadline to Sept. 1, 2016, for districts facing particular "hardships."

"The increase in state aid is very helpful, provided we get it," Dragone said. "I'm a little bit worried about it. But in Roslyn, we have a very good relationship with our teachers union, and I'm confident that our negotiations for a new APPR will be successful."


Support to extend tax cap

Tax activists said Thursday that the state's cap on increases in annual property taxation, first imposed in spring 2012, has played a crucial role in curbing school spending. They now support Cuomo's push to extend the cap, which is set to expire in 2016.

"Isn't it wonderful?" said one activist, Andrea Vecchio of East Islip, about the low spending and tax projections. She added that a continued fall in school enrollment across the region should allow more districts to reduce spending in future years.

"Even if it were just a small decrease, it would give people such hope that they could retire and continue living on the Island, rather than moving to Florida for the lower taxes," said Vecchio, who is a founder of Long Islanders for Educational Reform, a regional tax group.

Some school administrators acknowledge that caps have had a positive influence in some ways.

"I wasn't a big fan of it, but it has forced us to be disciplined in terms of our spending, because the revenue is limited," Casciano said. With Michael R. Ebert

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