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School budgets: Taxes up 2.48%, spending up 2.5%

Members of the Wyandanch community and members of

Members of the Wyandanch community and members of the teacher union demonstrate April 10 outside the Wyandanch school district's administration building before a school board meeting focused on the 2019-20 budget. Credit: Howard Simmons

Total school taxation across Long Island will bump up to nearly $9 billion in the coming school year, while the increase in district spending slows, according to state figures released Tuesday that track public education funding regionally and statewide.

School tax collections in the Nassau-Suffolk region are projected to rise an average 2.48 percent for the 2019-20 academic year to a total $8.9 billion, up slightly from this year's 2.37 percent average increase. School expenditures will climb 2.5 percent on average to $13.1 billion — less than this year's 2.85 percent.

Tax and spending figures were calculated by Newsday both regionally and by district, drawing on Property Tax Report Cards released by the state Education Department. The data cover 121 school systems in Nassau and Suffolk counties, excluding only the tiny East End districts of New Suffolk, Sagaponack and Wainscott.

Voting on proposed school budgets is scheduled for May 21, with district officials waiting anxiously to see if polling patterns are affected by changes in rules from Washington limiting the amount of property taxes homeowners can deduct from their federal income tax. Islandwide, school taxes account for more than 60 percent of total property-tax bills.

Since the state imposed cap restrictions on tax-levy hikes in 2012-13, more than 90 percent of local district budgets have won voter approval annually. The state's cap law sets a baseline limit on annual increases of 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is lower. 

This year's baseline is 2 percent statewide. Each district's tax-levy limit varies, however, depending upon exceptions allowed by the law, such as school-construction spending approved by local voters.

Many school leaders, despite recent successes in winning budget approvals, said that new U.S. tax policies raise questions about the current mood of taxpayers. The overhaul in tax law, signed by President Donald Trump last year, limits to $10,000 the amount of state and local taxes, known as SALT, that can be deducted from federal taxes.

"We're very mindful of the effect of reduced SALT deductions on our citizens," Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Plainview-Old Bethpage schools, said in a phone interview Tuesday. "We're not sure how that will impact their ability to pay long term, so we've been particularly careful in our spending plans and how they affected taxes. And I would assume my fellow superintendents are in the same frame of mind."

Lewis also serves as president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. 

Joseph Dragone, a veteran school business official who conducts annual surveys of tax-and-spending plans on the Island, said he is particularly concerned about the timing of school budget votes. 

"Tax returns were due April 15, and the budget vote is only about four weeks later," said Dragone, who serves as Roslyn's assistant superintendent for business and administration. "So those people who did not get a refund this year, or got a smaller refund, or had to pay more money, will be stinging from that. I just hope they remember that school districts are not responsible, and that school district budgets are increasing spending at roughly the rate of inflation."

At the state level, Michael Borges, executive director of the Association of School Business Officials of New York, said school spending is driven by several factors over which local district officials have little control, including union salary contracts, special education requirements and health insurance premiums.

"You're kind of stuck with the deal," Borges said.

Taxpayer advocates on the Island take exception to such assertions, saying that districts should be able to lower expenses at a time when enrollments in most districts are continuing a long decline. Next year's Islandwide enrollments are projected at 431,987 — down 5,111 or 1.2 percent from this year's student population, the state data show.

"When enrollments go down, budgets should go down, too, shouldn't they?" said Andrea Vecchio of East Islip, a founder of Long Islanders for Educational Reform, a regional taxpayer network. "But they don't, and they never will." 

Three districts on the Island — Eastport-South Manor, Wainscott and Wyandanch — have announced efforts to exceed cap restrictions. Under state law, overrides require voter supermajorities of at least 60 percent. 

Tiny Wainscott in the Hamptons, which operates a one-room schoolhouse, has proposed a $3.32 million budget for next year that is about $8,600 less than this year's figure. The plan would raise next year's taxes about 18 percent, while the cap would hold them to 2.97 percent. 

David Eagan, the school board president, said Wainscott's size makes it susceptible to sudden sharp increases in expenses in areas such as special education. That factor has contributed to the need for a cap override, he added. 

"We expect some people won't be happy, but we still believe we'll win a supermajority, based on our support historically, which has been phenomenal," Eagan said in a phone interview.

The 2,700-student Wyandanch district, which is the poorest in Suffolk County in terms of taxable wealth, has proposed a $77.8 million budget, up 9.19 percent from this year. The plan would drive up taxes 40.48 percent, more than 10 times the district's cap limit. 

Failure to pass a budget could result in elimination of bus rides for hundreds of students, along with painful cuts in staffing and sports programs, district officials have warned. 

A state comptroller's report, issued in March, faulted the district's administration for persistently ignoring fiscal projections of a growing budget deficit. Mary Jones, Wyandanch's superintendent, has blamed the fiscal gap on circumstances largely beyond the district's control, including a recent influx of non-English-speaking students.

"I implore you to keep an open mind as you read or hear stories that have been posted," Jones stated in a letter issued to residents last month. "Above all else, keep the faith. Things will get better." 

James Crawford, the board president, told Newsday late Tuesday that deep cuts are not inevitable if the proposed budget fails in initial voting, and a June revote on a reduced spending plan is possible. 

"We'd have to discuss with the board and staff to see if we could come up with a new budget," Crawford said. 

The 3,200-student Eastport-South Manor system has been flagged repeatedly by the state for facing fiscal stress, including depletion of its reserves. The district's proposed $96.5 million budget would raise spending 3.26 percent. 

The budget alone would raise taxes 2.75 percent, which keeps within cap limits. However, an additional ballot proposition of $512,411 to hire armed security guards would boost the tax increase to 3.69 percent and pierce the cap. 

A further complication for Eastport-South Manor was the board's recent suspension of the superintendent, Patrick Brimstein, in the wake of policy disputes that have not been disclosed because of confidentiality rules. 

Tim Laube, who was hired in July 2017 as the district's assistant superintendent for business and operations, said Tuesday that he has contacted local fire departments, parent-teacher organizations and a local civic association in an effort to reach as many residents as possible and build support for the spending plan. 

"You know, that's a tough one," Laube said when asked for his assessment of whether the budget would pass. "It's hard to get a read. I'll learn more as I go." 

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