Public school leaders on Long Island said they hope that recent history repeats itself in Tuesday’s elections and the great majority of district budgets, encompassing $12.8 billion in spending regionwide, win local voters’ support.
At this time last year, 100 percent of districts’ spending plans in Nassau and Suffolk counties — 124 budgets in all — passed in mid-May, meaning that no revotes were needed in June. Those results marked an all-time record, although approval rates have climbed steadily over the past six years, both in the two-county region and statewide.
Education finance experts agreed that a major factor in the growing number of budget approvals has been the state’s imposition of tax-cap restrictions, which took effect during the 2012-13 school year. The caps limit annual increases in local school property taxes under a formula based largely on the inflation rate, and have proved popular with voters.
“I’m very hopeful that we will have a very significant majority of budgets passed,” said Joseph Dragone, assistant superintendent for business and administration in the Roslyn system. “I think school districts have worked hard to keep budget increases in line.”
Only the 645-student Greenport district on the Island’s semirural North Fork is seeking to override its tax-cap limit this year. In North Bellmore, two parent groups have petitioned for expanded student bus transportation that would push taxation beyond the allowed limit in that Nassau district.
Because of those potential cap-piercings, in those two districts the proposed budgets for 2018-19 must be OK’d by 60 percent of those voting to pass, rather than a simple majority.
Newsday’s annual survey of district spending plans found wide disparities in approach from one community to another.
At least 56 school systems in the region propose to expand programs, staffs or both — sometimes in a major way. A ballot proposition in Massapequa seeks approval to allot $15.3 million for an aquatic center at Berner Middle School.
Eighteen districts plan reductions — among them Eastport-South Manor, which projects the loss of more than 70 staff positions to avoid running into the red. At least 35 other districts indicated they plan to maintain current staff and programs.
For many systems this year, the toughest question was not whether to simply stay within their tax-cap limit, but whether to hold any increase in the local tax levy well below the maximum allowed, as a signal of support for taxpayers.
More than half of homeowners in Nassau County and nearly one-third in Suffolk pay $10,000 or more in property taxes, compared with a national rate of 4.4 percent, according to Attom Data Solutions, a California-based real-estate information company.
Such homeowners could face a fiscal reckoning in April 2019, when a new federal tax law takes full effect. The law limits to $10,000 the amount of state and local taxes that property owners can deduct on their federal income taxes.
Elwood, like many districts, decided to hold the tax increase in 2018-19 substantially below the cap limit. Local property-tax collections are projected to rise 2.72 percent next year; the allowable limit locally is 4.21 percent.
Kenneth Bossert, the Elwood superintendent, said the district’s board was mindful of two things: federal tax law and the fact that voters in November approved a $34.5 million bond issue for school renovations.
“They wanted to be responsible to the taxpayers, particularly when the public had already supported a capital bond,” Bossert said. “Also, there was the uncertainty over federal tax law and the effect this would have on individual homeowners.”
With Michael R. Ebert