School districts on Long Island and elsewhere in the state may have little room for budget growth in the next academic year under a tax cap set by New York.
The state has limited the increase in tax levies — the money school districts and municipalities raise from property taxes — to 1.23% for the fiscal year beginning July 1, according to a news release from state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.
That's the lowest permissible tax levy increase since 2016, when it was capped at .12%. Last year, the cap was set at 1.81%
"School district and municipal officials must remain fiscally cautious to stay under the cap as they prepare their budgets," DiNapoli said in a statement. "They must examine their budgets more closely to control expenses."
While any potential tax levy increases will be relatively modest, they would still be too great for Andrea Vecchio, a longtime school tax activist from East Islip.
Vecchio argued it would be inappropriate for school districts to raise tax levies at all in the upcoming school year, given the interruptions to full-time in-person instruction during the pandemic.
Instead, "everybody should get a reduction" in their school tax bills, she said. "It's only fair."
School taxes constitute the largest portion of property tax bills on Long Island.
But Henry Grishman, superintendent of schools in Jericho, said his district has seen expenses increase on balance during the pandemic. Reducing classroom capacity and additional cleaning of facilities required hiring extra staff, he said, and the cost of hand sanitizer, desk shields and personal protective equipment also added up.
And while New Yorkers are now being vaccinated against COVID-19, Grishman said he does not expect pandemic-related costs to disappear when students return to classrooms next fall, especially given that the vaccines are currently not available to people younger than 16.
"I would love to believe that it will be business as usual on September 1, 2021," he said. "I'm not optimistic."
Grishman said the relatively low tax cap would prove a challenge to districts such as his, especially since they may see a funding cut from New York State, which itself is facing a massive deficit.
The state introduced its levy cap in 2012 as a means of controlling tax growth. The law limits annual tax levy increases to 2% or the rate of inflation — whatever is lower.
School districts may still exceed the cap if 60% of district residents vote in favor of doing so.
New Yorkers will vote on school district budgets May 18, according to the New York State School Boards Association.