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Long IslandEducation

School budgets pass in 123 of LI's 124 districts

Kelly Beneventano casts her vote at Centereach High

Kelly Beneventano casts her vote at Centereach High School on Tuesday. Credit: James Carbone

Budgets in 123 school districts across Long Island passed Tuesday, including in Eastport-South Manor, where voters approved the $96.5 million budget for the 2019-20 academic year but decisively rejected an effort to hire armed security guards.

The Wyandanch district's spending plan was the only one to fail. The proposed $77.8 million budget, with a whopping 40.93 percent tax increase, went down overwhelmingly, with 149 "yes" votes to 332 "no" votes. A proposition to reduce the number of students eligible for bus rides also was rejected, with 162 in favor and 310 opposed.  

Two board incumbents, President James Crawford and Vice President Yvonne Holder-Robinson, won re-election by narrow margins. Crawford works as an assistant principal in another district, and Robinson is a longtime day-care provider.

Wyandanch’s board has scheduled a meeting for 7 p.m. Wednesday, where board members could deliberate on future options such as a re-vote on a reduced spending plan.

The Westbury school system was the last on the Island to report results, at 1:20 a.m. Wednesday. In the Nassau County district, which has struggled with overcrowding and outdated school buildings, the $155.9 million budget passed 908-370. Voters also handily approved a proposition to establish a capital reserve fund of up to $25 million for future renovations and repairs to classrooms and other district facilities.

Eastport-South Manor's ballot included two propositions — the regular budget that kept within the district's state-imposed tax cap, and a separate proposal to hire six armed guards that would have pushed the system beyond its normal tax limit. In the end, voters' choice meant the district did not exceed its cap, holding the district to a 2.75 percent tax increase. 

Budget approval means that Eastport-South Manor, which has struggled financially the past several years, will be able to hire a few extra teachers to lower class sizes, along with a new psychologist and  counselor. The district also is adding STEM programs that incorporate science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

"I'm excited. I think everyone's excited," said Tim Laube, the district's assistant superintendent for business and operations.

The tiny Wainscott district in the Hamptons got voters' approval to override its tax-cap limit.

Wainscott’s $3.3 million budget, with an 18.5 percent tax increase, passed 37-13. The 74 percent approval was more than the 60 percent supermajority required for a cap override under state law. Wainscott enrolls 28 students in a one-room schoolhouse and takes pride in the support it historically has received from local taxpayers.

“That was the most ‘no’ votes we received in history, so that’s a message of a sort," said David Eagan, president of Wainscott’s board and owner of a local horse farm. “But we’re very grateful. We have a really supportive community.”

Other eastern Long Island districts where spending proposals won, mostly by lopsided margins, included Amagansett, Sagaponack, East Hampton, East Quogue, Greenport, Hampton Bays, Montauk, New Suffolk, Oysterponds, Remsenburg-Speonk, Tuckahoe and Westhampton Beach. Sagaponack’s tally was unanimous — 30 residents in favor.

To the west, returns showed budgets winning approval in a wide range of districts including Bay Shore,, East Williston, Harborfields, Huntington, Plainview-Old Bethpage and Wantagh, among many others. Districts where spending plans passed with bigger-than-aveage tax increases included Bridgehamton with a 10.83 percent hike, Bayport-Blue Point with 3.77 percent and Bethpage, 3.43 percent. 

Across the Island, voters weighed in on budgets totaling more than $13 billion and scores of board races, where hot-button issues in some systems included hiring armed security guards and eliminating student bus rides.

Other than Wainscott and Eastport-South Manor, only Wyandanch sought to exceed its cap this year.Neither Eastport-South Manor nor Wyandanch overrode  their caps in the end. 

In Wyandanch, voters emerging from the district’s administrative office polling site voiced a mixture of anger and frustration over the proposed $77.8 million budget, which carries a tax increase of 40.9 percent. The projected increase is, by far, the highest in the region and well beyond the local 0.95 percent cap limit.

“I’m a senior citizen, and I cannot afford to continue supporting what’s going on,” said Vernell Garrett, a voter and nurse’s assistant, who has lived in the community 45 years. “It’s time for a change.”

None of a half-dozen residents interviewed at the polling site said they supported the district’s spending plan. Several, such as Ben Mason, a retired janitor, expressed concern over another ballot proposition that would reduce student transportation to the state’s minimum requirements — a move that could cost as many as 1,000 students their bus rides.

“It’s a shame to cut buses out,” Mason said.

In Eastport-South Manor, the separate ballot proposition authorizing the hiring of armed security guards — which was the only element pushing the district past its cap — prompted debate.

One voter, Mary Kroll, who teaches science research in another district, said she supported the budget, but opposed armed guards.

“It’s very important that we support the budget for our future,” said Kroll, as she emerged from polls at the district’s sprawling junior-senior high school in Manorville. “Armed security guards, I voted ‘no.’ I’m not comfortable with that yet.”

Passage of proposed budgets Islandwide means an average of about  2.5 percent rise in spending, while tax collections increase an average of about 2.48 percent. Both figures are slightly above the inflation rate, which is a key factor in determining districts’ annual cap restrictions.

Tuesday's results continue a record winning streak for school budgets, which have passed at rates of 95 percent or better for seven years in a row. 

Lorraine Deller, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association, noted that many district spending plans passed by wide margins — a phenomenon that has become the norm since the state first imposed caps on taxation in 2012-13.

"Looking across the Island, I think it's affirmation of the value Long Islanders place on their public schools," Deller said.

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.

If a budget fails, the district’s school board must decide whether to reoffer the same spending plan or a reduced budget for a revote on June 18, or whether to go immediately to a sharply limited contingency budget. In addition, if a budget put up for a revote is rejected, the district must abide by its contingency budget.

Under law, a contingency budget requires a tax freeze as well as spending adjustments.

In districts Islandwide, academic upgrades were included in spending plans.

A Newsday survey found that Freeport, Wantagh, Bridgehampton, Harborfields and Patchogue-Medford all were among districts planning expansion of college-level Advanced Placement programs. The North Shore school district will add 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 local middle schools will 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.

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