Tuesday is decision day in public school districts across Long Island, with votes on budgets totaling more than $13 billion and board races where hot-button issues in some systems include hiring of armed security guards and elimination of student bus rides.
All but three of the Island's 124 school districts have kept tax proposals within limits set by New York's cap law, recently made permanent by state legislators. The Eastport-South Manor, Wainscott and Wyandanch systems are seeking to override their respective caps and raise taxes beyond the state-imposed limit, which requires a higher approval percentage for passage.
Proposed budgets Islandwide for the 2019-20 school year would mean an average 2.5 percent rise in spending, while tax collections would increase an average 2.48 percent. Both figures are slightly above the inflation rate, which is a key factor in determining districts’ annual cap restrictions.
Under the law, the state set a statewide baseline cap of 2 percent for 2019-20, the same restriction that was in place for the current year. Local districts have individual caps, and these frequently are higher than the baseline because of adjustments for exempted expenses, such as interest payments on voter-approved bond issues.
Districts projecting higher-than-average tax-levy hikes for next year while remaining within their caps include Bridgehampton, with a 10.83 percent increase; Quogue, 4.11 percent; Westhampton Beach, 3.64 percent; Bayport-Blue Point, 3.77 percent; and Bethpage, 3.43 percent.
Elwood schools Superintendent Kenneth Bossert said he and colleagues in other districts hope for a repeat of voting patterns over the past six years, when more than 95 percent of budgets in the region passed in May votes.
This year, Bossert noted, there are some "variables" — notably, a recent change in federal law that curbs deductions of local property taxes from federal income taxes.
The change, which essentially boosts the tax impact on homes with higher property values, has angered some local taxpayer groups.
"I don't think anybody is anticipating any surprises," said Bossert, who is president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association. "We've learned on Long Island, generally, that if you stay within your cap and present a responsible budget, you can anticipate support from your community."
If a budget fails, the district's school board must decide whether to reoffer the same spending plan or a reduced budget for a re-vote on June 18, or whether to go immediately to a sharply limited contingency budget. In addition, if a budget put up for a re-vote is rejected, the district must abide by its contingency budget.
Yet another variable is low voter participation in most school elections, which raises the possibility that special-interest groups can swing outcomes.
Two of this year’s most heated school elections are being held in Eastport-South Manor and Wyandanch, which are dealing not only with proposed cap overrides, but with controversial ballot propositions. Overrides require approval by voter supermajorities of at least 60 percent.
Eastport-South Manor’s proposed $96.5 million budget calls for a 2.75 percent increase in the tax levy, which is equal to the district’s cap limit. However, another proposition on the district’s ballot would authorize the hiring of six armed guards at an annual cost of $512,411, and push the district over its assigned cap.
Wyandanch has put forward a singular budget plan — a $77.8 million proposal that would boost taxation more than 40 percent, far beyond the district’s 0.95 percent cap. A separate ballot proposition seeks to save as much as $1.6 million by clamping tight limits on transportation that could cost an estimated 1,000 students their bus rides.
In Wainscott, response to the attempted cap override has been muted. The tiny Hamptons district enrolls 28 students in a one-room schoolhouse. The district's proposed $3.3 million budget would raise taxes 18.5percent; the cap is 2.93 percent.
Across the Island, district officials reported that school spending was driven by teacher pay raises, higher health-insurance premiums and program expansions focused largely on school security and students' mental health.
Academic upgrades also were on the agenda.
A Newsday survey found that Freeport, Wantagh, Bridgehampton, Harborfields and Patchogue-Medford all are among districts planning expansion of college-level Advanced Placement programs. The North Shore school district is adding programs in coding, journalism and robotics. Central Islip is restoring elementary summer school.
In the 8,900-student William Floyd system, administrators said a planned expansion of class schedules at the two middle schools would provide about 2,400 students with increased access to both remedial instruction and enriched elective courses geared to their interest. Subjects would include research, robotics, forensics, debate and personal finance.
Kathleen Keane, the district's assistant superintendent for secondary instruction and administration, said prime goals are to make school more enjoyable for teenage students and to boost graduation rates.
"We really did want to get our middle schoolers engaged," Keane said.