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Long IslandEducation

School taxes projected to rise around 1.73% for 2017-18

Jericho High School students work on class assignments

Jericho High School students work on class assignments in their Advanced Placement course on United States Government and Politics on Oct. 19, 2016. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

School spending on Long Island is projected to rise an average 2.35 percent for the 2017-18 school year, with school taxes to increase an average 1.73 percent — more than this year’s hikes, but within state tax-cap restrictions for the great majority of districts.

Figures from the districts released Wednesday by the state Education Department, called the property tax report cards, show budgeted spending growing by an average 2.36 percent in Nassau County and 2.33 percent in Suffolk County.

Tax levies — that is, total revenue raised through property taxation — are projected to rise an average 1.37 percent in Nassau and 2.10 percent in Suffolk.

The Education Department collects reports annually from about 700 districts across the state, including 121 in the two-county region. Three East End districts — New Suffolk, Sagaponack and Wainscott — were exempted from reporting because of their small size.

School budgets are proposals at this point and will be submitted to voters May 16. Once approved, those spending plans result in taxation that accounts for more than 65 percent of property owners’ tax bills.

Only one school district on the Island — tiny New Suffolk on the North Fork — has announced that it will attempt to override its state-imposed tax cap. Under law, that means 60 percent of those voting must approve the proposed budget.

Newsday obtained New Suffolk’s financial information directly from the district.

Many schools plan to add new student programs and services next year, aided by millions of dollars in fresh financial assistance from Albany, as well as reductions in state pension costs.

“Generally, if you look at the last two years, school districts could look at their figures more optimistically,” said Henry Grishman, superintendent of Jericho schools. “People have used the money to restore programs, and I’ve also seen an awful lot of technology enhancement.”

Jericho, for example, plans to buy an additional 550 Chromebook laptop computers next year for student use, bringing its total inventory of such devices to 1,400.

This year marks the first since caps were imposed in 2012-13 that only one district has declared an intent to override at this stage in the budget cycle. New York State enforces caps with financial incentives for district compliance and penalties for noncompliance.

State law sets a baseline cap increase of either 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is lower. The statewide baseline for 2017-18 is 1.26 percent, but every district is assigned its own tax-cap limit depending upon exemptions for certain types of spending — such as voter-approved bonds used for school renovations.

New Suffolk’s spending plan raises its tax levy 6.5 percent next year, well above the district’s 3.4 percent limit. Local school officials said they were reluctant to propose such a hike, but felt justified by an unexpected jump in tuition costs.

The small district operates one elementary school and sends its older students to nearby Southold on a tuition basis for grades seven through 12. This year, four new students of high school age moved into New Suffolk — an unusually large increase for a system of about 25 students, local officials said.

In addition, New Suffolk received two new elementary-age students who speak little English. The district must pay for the students to receive language instruction in Southold, which has teachers certified to work with such youngsters.

“You’re talking about $20,000 per student for a full year, and that’s a big hit” said Tony Dill, president of New Suffolk’s school board, referring to tuition expenses.

As part of an effort to curb such costs, two local teachers are being certified to teach non-English-speaking students, he said.

Five districts in Nassau and one in Suffolk are cutting taxes, including Valley Stream 30, which has projected the biggest levy reduction — a one-time cut of 15.17 percent.

Local school leaders said the reduction fulfills their pledge to apply any payments made by property owners in lieu of taxes — payments known as PILOTs — to reducing the levy for 2017-18. The pledge covers only PILOTs that exceeded budgeted revenues this year.

Valley Stream administrators said they hope the levy reduction provides relief for local homeowners, but cannot be certain because of complexities in Nassau’s tax system that are beyond their control.

One complexity lies in the fact that Nassau has four classes of taxable property, and that the share of the burden borne by each class, including commercial and residential properties, shifts from year to year. Another issue is that the biggest PILOT payments are made by the Green Acres shopping mall and now are the subject of legal disputes.

As a result, school officials said, they cannot be absolutely certain their district will continue to receive the same payments as in the past. They added that any solution to their problem is up to various government entities, including the county, Hempstead Town and the town’s Industrial Development Agency, which arranges commercial tax exemptions and PILOTs.

“Obviously, what we are trying to do is get some answers to our questions,” said Nicholas Stirling, superintendent of the Valley Stream 30 district.

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