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Long IslandEducation

LI school budgets show biggest average boost in 5 years

Proposed spending in two districts — Greenport and North Bellmore — would require 60 percent voter approval to override local tax-cap limits.

Jenellen Skuggevik's pre-K students learn about plant life

Jenellen Skuggevik's pre-K students learn about plant life Tuesday at Greenport Elementary School in Greenport. Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

Public school budgets are expected to grow an average 2.85 percent across Long Island to a total of $12.8 billion in 2018-19 — the biggest proposed spending boost in five years.

School taxation, meanwhile, is projected to increase an average 2.37 percent on the Island to more than $8.7 billion, according to official Property Tax Report Cards released Wednesday by the state Education Department. That also is the largest rise in taxation since that of the 2013-14 school year.

The reports cover 121 of the 124 districts in the Nassau-Suffolk region and more than 660 systems statewide. Three East End districts — New Suffolk, Sagaponack and Wainscott — were exempted from reporting because of their small size.

Most districts will stay within the state’s tax-cap limits, but proposed spending in the Greenport and North Bellmore systems would require overrides of their local caps. The tax restrictions vary widely by district because of school costs that are exempted, such as voter-approved borrowing for school construction and renovation.

Voters go to the polls May 15 to decide on proposed spending plans and school board races in local districts.

Greenport’s school administration is supporting an override there — the third within six years, with other such efforts in 2012 and 2016 gaining voter approval. In North Bellmore, two community groups have petitioned for expanded bus transportation that would require a tax-cap override.

Under state law, district budgets that exceed cap restrictions must be approved by at least 60 percent of those voting, rather than a simple majority.

School taxation accounts for about two-thirds of homeowners’ tax bills on the Island, which consistently ranks among the most heavily assessed regions in the country.

Budget plans vary widely depending on local circumstances.

Jericho and Mattituck-Cutchogue have proposed small spending cuts, while 12 districts — including Bridgehampton, Copiague, Merrick and West Babylon — envision hikes of 4 percent or more.

“Districts were very mindful this year, in particular, of what their communities needed,” said Lars Clemensen, the schools chief in Hampton Bays and president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association. “For some, that meant keeping school tax increases under the cap. For others, it meant providing school security or investment in the social and emotional needs of kids.”

Increases in tax-and-spending proposals for the 2018-19 school year, though the highest in five years, remain relatively low compared with raises of a decade ago.

Taxpayer activists credit slower growth to the caps first imposed on school districts in 2012-13 under Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

“It has worked effectively. It’s not as effective as it was, but it’s a lot better than the 5 to 10 percent increases we used to get,” said Fred Gorman, chairman of the Nesconset-Sachem Civic Association and a longtime regional taxpayer advocate. “Let’s give Governor Cuomo some credit.”

North Bellmore, an elementary district with about 2,000 students in preschool through sixth grade, faces a tax situation that might be dubbed the “Battle of the Buses.”

One parent group has petitioned to increase the number of children in grades four through six who are eligible for busing to local public schools. Another group is seeking to expand transportation for children attending nonpublic schools, going beyond the minimum set by state law.

The cost of more busing would increase North Bellmore’s tax levy — that is, total revenue collected through property taxation — by as much as 5.31 percent next year, according to district officials. A hike that size would exceed the district’s cap limit of 3.4 percent, and thus require approval by at least 60 percent of those who vote on May 15.

Some residents are reacting to the push for more busing by sponsoring their own measure cutting back on transportation. Meanwhile, the school board has its proposal on the ballot to maintain busing at current levels, which would keep the district within its cap.

The North Bellmore district’s budget brochure takes the better part of three pages to explain the four differing approaches to student transit.

“We’re hoping that all the propositions don’t confuse the community,” said Mark Schissler, the district’s assistant superintendent for business.

Greenport projects a 4.62 percent tax hike for 2018-19, well above its allowed 2.62 percent cap.

The district had reported to the state comptroller’s office in March, as part of state budgeting rules, that it was not considering a cap override.

But Superintendent David Gamberg told Newsday he changed his mind on the issue after reviewing the district’s rising costs for the coming year, including the hiring of a security guard.

At a budget meeting in mid-April, residents were told that the only way to remain within the tax cap while meeting rising costs would be to cut programs in other areas, such as prekindergarten and high school electives.

Residents who spoke out supported a cap override, with some saying later they wanted to avoid the sort of teacher layoffs that Greenport imposed some years back.

“We’re slowly trying to build our way back, and we cannot take a step backward,” said Kim Swann, an insurance broker who heads the district’s Parent Teacher Organization.

Rising spending and tax levies

Here are projected school budget and tax increases for 2018-19.

Nassau

Average spending: 2.92%

Average tax levy: 2.21%

Suffolk

Average spending: 2.79%

Average tax levy: 2.54%

Long Island

Average spending: 2.85%

Average tax levy: 2.37%

Source: Property Tax Report Cards, state Education Department

Districts with cap-busting ballot proposals

Greenport: Proposed budget for 2018-19 carries tax-levy increase of 4.62 percent, above the state’s limit of 2.62 percent.

North Bellmore: Propositions on student transportation, if approved by voters, could raise the tax levy as much as 5.31 percent, above the state’s limit of 3.4 percent. The district’s proposed budget stays within the cap.

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