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LI school districts weigh adding security, programs vs. cutting taxes

A security officer at Hauppauge High School on

A security officer at Hauppauge High School on April 19. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Surveys of Long Island school districts’ proposed 2018-19 budgets confirm that taxes are increasing at a greater pace, with much of the extra money earmarked for security guards and other safety measures.

A Newsday sampling of district spending plans, many of which were completed last week, also indicates that a majority of school systems are choosing to devote additional state-aid funds to student programs and services, rather than to curbing taxes.

A separate review of 101 budget proposals, conducted by a regional network of school business officials, indicates that the average tax levy — that is, total revenues from local property taxation — will increase 2.42 percent in Nassau and Suffolk counties, up from 1.84 percent for the current academic year.

That would represent the steepest increase on the Island since 2013-14.

Prospects of higher taxation are consistent with findings of the Newsday sampling of proposed spending plans and with projections provided in March by all 124 districts on the Island. Those projections, filed with the state comptroller’s office, showed an average tax hike of 2.6 percent.

Monday marks the deadline for districts to submit taxing-and-spending plans to the state Education Department. Local districts’ proposed budgets are being aired at public meetings in the run-up to the May 15 budget vote.

School levies account for more than 60 percent of homeowners’ tax bills on Long Island, which is consistently ranked as having some of the highest assessments in the nation.

Other highlights from the two surveys of the Island’s school systems include:

  • A majority of districts kept their tax projections at the same levels set in March or very close to those levels. Newsday’s survey of 40 districts that posted budgets this month found 24 districts with the same increases listed in March, 12 systems with lesser increases and two with higher increases.
  • A sizable minority of districts lowered the tax projections they issued in March — largely by using extra financial aid, allotted in April under the state budget deal reached in Albany — to reduce the funds needed through property taxation. Central Islip lowered its levy increase from 3.09 percent to 1.66 percent, Roosevelt from 3.3 percent to 1.93 percent, Roslyn from 2.3 percent to 1.72 percent and Huntington from 3.14 percent to 2.68.
  • Security enhancements are a budget priority for many districts. East Quogue, Levittown, North Bellmore and Sachem all plan to employ more security guards or security aides in the 2018-19 school year. Great Neck also plans to hire additional guards, and wants to install protective vestibules at main entrances of its schools.

The financial bottom line for school systems received an infusion last month, when the State Legislature approved an extra $100 million in school assistance for the Island for 2018-19, up 3.57 percent from the current year and about $36 million more than Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had proposed. Statewide, the total additional aid was nearly $1 billion.

For local education officials, a pressing question was whether to use that additional aid to curb taxation or to expand educational programs and security measures. Arguments were strong on both sides.

On the one hand, taxpayer groups pointed out that a new federal law limiting deductions for state and local taxes, including school levies, could impose greater burdens on many homeowners.

On the other side, growing numbers of parents called for enhanced protection of their children after the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 students and staff members were killed.

In the end, districts split on the question, with some lowering tax projections while others stuck to their original plans for higher increases.

Education leaders defended decisions for higher rates of taxation by citing rises in costs of employee benefits and other expenses. They also pointed out that Albany’s latest aid increase of $100 million for the Island’s schools, while substantial, was the lowest in seven years.

“Our school districts are not experiencing a windfall,” said Lorraine Deller, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association. “Extra costs of pensions and health coverage just have to be met. Plus, you have demands from the community for extra services. That’s where security and opioid treatment come in.”

The financial pain is especially acute this year in the Eastport-South Manor district, which is calling for reductions of more than 70 positions of teachers and other staff in an effort to prevent a financial meltdown.

The prospect of higher tax bills for homeowners has generated scattered protests.

At a recent school board meeting in Great Neck, one resident, Vincent Lentini, objected to plans for a higher tax hike than originally envisioned. School officials defended their position, saying the district had been fiscally responsible in never raising taxes beyond the limits set by the state’s property-tax cap, which first was imposed in 2012-13.

Lentini, an attorney and father of two, later expressed a degree of frustration in a phone interview.

“Am I happy about spending going up in school districts every year? No,” he said. “Do I understand why they’re doing it? Yes. It’s a thankless job for the people who do it. So I don’t know what the answer is.”

Joseph Dragone, assistant superintendent for business and administration in the Roslyn system, organized the regional survey that recently compiled budget and tax figures for most districts on the Island, and he understands both sides of the debate on taxation.

Roslyn’s decision to reduce its tax increase was based largely on concerns over the potential impact of lower deductions for state and local taxes known as SALT, he said.

“Our board of education has decided that, given all the things that are happening in the economy, especially with the SALT deduction going way down, that they wanted to protect their taxpayers,” Dragone said.

With Michael R. Ebert

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