Long Island schools look to hold line on property taxes with record state aid
As a longtime Freeport homeowner, Sonia Dixon welcomed a recent announcement by local school officials that they planned to trim taxes during the next school year.
"The fact that taxes have not increased is a break," said Dixon, a data analyst who formerly served as a PTA council president. "I couldn't be more excited to hear about this as a Freeport resident."
Across Long Island, school leaders have started drafting budgets as they prepare for school-budget voting in May, with several already indicating they plan to include proposals for tax relief. Local administrators cite several factors enabling them to do so, including Gov. Kathy Hochul's call for a record expansion of state school aid in 2023-24, and a recent state drive to direct more money toward high-needs districts.
For example, Freeport announced earlier this month that it will slightly reduce taxes for the eighth time in nine years. Hempstead has said it would adopt a zero tax increase for the sixth year in a row.
WHAT TO KNOW
Freeport's school district has announced plans to trim taxes in the 2023-24 school year, while Hempstead has said it will hold taxes to a zero increase.
State plans for a record-breaking school-aid expansion could help other districts hold taxes relatively low, finance experts said.
- Aid distribution varies widely from district to district on Long Island under the state's "foundation" formula, making it easier for some systems to reduce taxes than others.
Most of the region's other 122 districts will be releasing estimates in coming weeks.
School taxes are a key factor in the region's high cost of living, accounting for more than 60% of property owners' tax bills. Those charges rank among the highest in the country, studies have shown.
Financial experts predicted, however, that many districts will be able to keep tax hikes relatively low in their proposals this spring. Hochul's plan for a record increase in state school aid is a big reason for optimism: It would include an extra $775 million for Long Island alone.
"The more the state supports public education, the more pressure it takes off property taxes," said Ryan Ruf, chief operating officer of the regional Eastern Suffolk BOCES educational system, headquartered in Patchogue.
Ruf and other authorities cautioned, however, that fiscal conditions vary widely from district to district, and that systems will need to be careful in their planning. The state is working toward completion of a three-year phase-in of large increases in financial aid and is not expected to be nearly as generous in its assistance after 2023-24.
For that reason, districts generally may not want to actually cut taxes next year if it might put them in the position of having to raise rates sharply later on, experts said.
"Aid increases will not be as large in 2024-25," said Joseph Dragone, a longtime school-business administrator who recently retired but remains active as a consultant for districts. "But the costs of providing public education will continue to rise."
State aid varies
Another reason that some districts shy away from tax cuts is the wide variation in state aid allotments from one system to another.
Currently, most of the state's financial assistance is distributed through a "foundation" formula that takes account of the needs of students with disadvantages such as poverty or limited English skills. The intent of the formula is to help level the playing field between rich and poor districts. But one side effect is that some systems serving large numbers of disadvantaged students are receiving double-digit-percentage aid increases, while more affluent systems receive minimal raises.
On the Island next year, eight districts including Hempstead and Freeport would get total state aid increases equivalent to 11% or more of their overall budgets, a Newsday analysis found. In contrast, 24 other systems would get aid increases equivalent to 1% or less of their budgets.
In Hempstead, total property tax collections known as a levy would remain at the current level of about $75.9 million next year, according to an estimate announced Jan. 11 by Jamal Scott, the district's assistant superintendent for business. This would represent the sixth annual freeze since 2018-19, Scott said.
Local officials have cautioned, however, that rates paid by individual homeowners could rise in some cases, depending on a variety of factors. In Nassau County, they include how those properties are assessed as part of the county's complex taxation system.
District leaders said that such shifts are beyond their control but added that they are doing their best to help homeowners in a community where family incomes are modest.
"We all know the hardships in Hempstead," said Randy Stith, president of Hempstead's school board. "People are moving out. We're just trying to do the best we can to relieve the burden on taxpayers here."
Seeking balance in Freeport
Freeport's tax levy, currently about $89.2 million, would dip by $106,991 or 0.12% next year, according to a preliminary report delivered Feb. 8 by Kishore Kuncham, the district's superintendent. This would be the eighth reduction in nine years, Kuncham said.
In a phone interview, the schools chief said that despite the levy reduction, district services and programs would be expanded through a combination of increased state and federal aid, use of reserve funds and other actions.
For 2023-24, Freeport plans to hire nine additional teachers, six teaching assistants, four social workers and a guidance counselor, Kuncham said. In addition, the district will add a number of new courses at its high school, including electives in artificial intelligence and student broadcasting.
Kuncham described district goals as aimed both at assisting students in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and also being mindful of taxpayers.
"We have gone through unprecedented times, so the needs of our students has been paramount to me," the superintendent added. "That being said, we're also mindful of the needs of our community."