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Long IslandEducation

School budgets: Money for salaries, programs, security

Students at William Paca Middle School in Mastic

Students at William Paca Middle School in Mastic Beach change classes on Wednesday. The school, with more than 900 students in grades six through eight, is in the William Floyd district. Credit: James Carbone

Long Islanders will vote Tuesday on proposed school budgets that boost spending more than $300 million regionwide, driven by rising salaries and expanded programs ranging from bilingual classes and high-tech training to mental health counseling and security upgrades.

Spending plans in the 124 districts across Nassau and Suffolk counties total $13.1 billion for the 2019-20 school year, up an average 2.5 percent from this year. More than two-thirds of that will be paid through $8.9 billion in property taxes, with the remainder picked up by state and federal aid.

Public school spending provides programs for nearly 432,000 students in prekindergarten through 12th grade on the Island. School taxes account for more than 60 percent of homeowners' tax bills.

State lawmakers, with an eye toward long-range tax relief, last month approved a plan pushed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to make permanent the statewide tax caps introduced in 2012-13. The caps set a baseline limit of 2 percent on annual increases in property-tax collections by school districts and municipalities. Each school system's limit is different depending on exemptions allowed under the law.

Three districts in the region — Eastport-South Manor, Wainscott and Wyandanch — are seeking approval by 60 percent supermajorities on Tuesday that would allow them to override their cap limitations. Under the law, the failure to win that can trigger a tax freeze. 

This year, the Island's taxpayers are continuing to adjust to the impact of changes from outside New York.

Federal tax law now limits to $10,000 the amount of state and local taxes, known as SALT, that can be deducted from federal income taxes. That has prompted complaints from homeowners in Nassau and Suffolk counties, where taxes are among the nation's highest, and concern from school officials worried about potential backlash at the ballot box.

Newsday, as part of its annual budget coverage, surveyed all 124 districts in the region regarding school board candidates, tax charges to homeowners, teacher salaries and trends in academic curriculums and student services.

Details from the survey, including brief profiles of 271 candidates running for contested board seats in 66 districts, appear on and in the School Voters Guide included in Sunday's newspaper.  

Highlights from the survey:

  • Homeowners' average tax bills vary widely, according to survey responses from 76 districts. Next year's charge will be less than $2,000 in the small eastern district of Amagansett, and more than $11,000 in such systems as Manhasset, Roslyn and Three Village. Cold Spring Harbor listed an average bill this year of over $20,000, the highest reported for the region, adding that it could not yet estimate next year's figure. The Islandwide median was about $7,500.   
  • Annual hikes in teachers' salaries ranged from less than 2 percent in Freeport and Eastport-South Manor, to more than 3.5 percent in districts that included Copiague, Merrick, North Shore, Patchogue-Medford and Rocky Point. The median raise Islandwide next year will be about  2.9 percent, according to responses from 66 districts. Full annual salaries for senior teachers ranged from about $119,000 to $136,000 in 2017-18, according to the latest compilations by the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association. 
  • Sixty-seven districts reported plans next year to restore, expand or add student services and programs, at least on a small scale. Shoreham-Wading River will purchase 800 Chromebook electronic tablets to equip all its high school students. The Glen Cove and William Floyd districts will expand class schedules at some of their secondary schools from eight daily periods to nine. Elwood, which lengthened its middle school schedule last year, will use the extra time next year to provide orchestra and chorus instruction within the regular day, rather than earlier in the morning before classes begin. Manhasset, in a unique initiative, will hire a part-time curator for its Gallery of Fine Arts, located in the high school lobby. 

A state law that took effect in July requires all schools, for the first time, to provide instruction in mental-health issues. Educators hope the new instruction, though limited by time constraints, will help students deal with hazards that include opioid abuse, attempted teenage suicides and school shootings.

Islandwide, the new emphasis on mental health and emotional well-being has prompted hiring of school professionals prepared to deal with student trauma on a day-to-day basis. 

Twenty districts responding to Newsday's survey reported plans to hire more psychologists, guidance counselors or social workers. A dozen districts cited plans for extra security precautions, such as contracting for armed guards or reinforcing school entrances to bar potential intruders. 

A related development is the introduction in some high schools of elective courses meant to instill a positive frame of mind. Hicksville plans a course called "The Art of Positive Living," based on a curriculum developed at Yale University. Shoreham-Wading River reported that 60 of its students already have signed up for a course titled "Foundations of a Mindful and Happy Life." 

"In this day and age, the art of positive living is something that appeals to this generation in high schools," said Anthony Lubrano, who is Hicksville's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. 

Other districts plan to give additional support to newly arrived students who speak limited English. Jericho, for example, has hired two new instructors certified to teach both academic English and English as a New Language, otherwise known as ENL. 

The intent, according to a Jericho administrator Daniel Salzman, is to increase language instruction for new students who, though articulate in their own language, hesitate to communicate in English. In Jericho, most of those students speak Mandarin, with a smaller number speaking Spanish.  

"It's a daunting task to have a 15-year-old in your class who just greets you in silence," said Salzman, who heads the district's English department. "They're capable, but  they're not sure what you want and what they should say. And we're supposed to teach them 'To Kill a Mockingbird' and 'Romeo and Juliet.' It's the new reality." 

A majority of districts Islandwide — 87 out of 114 that responded to the question — indicated they would be able to maintain all existing programs and services next year with funding provided through local taxation and state aid. 

"It's always a good year when you can put your budget together under the tax cap, maintain all your programs, and maybe add a little bit around the edges," said Gerard Poole, superintendent of Shoreham-Wading River schools. 

Still, there are scattered signs of financial strain and taxpayer resistance.  

Hempstead has announced plans to eliminate the jobs of 100 teachers and other employees next year. Malverne plans to cut about a dozen positions. Wyandanch has warned that hundreds of its students could lose bus rides in the fall, should its proposed budget — which carries a tax hike of more than 40 percent — be rejected at the polls.

In Port Washington, a local civic group is urging residents to vote "no" on the district's $160 million budget, which would raise spending 2.9 percent and tax collections 2.8 percent.

In his letter, Frank Russo Jr., president of the group called the Port Washington Educational Assembly, said the district should hold its tax hike to a flat 2 percent in recognition of pressures exerted on homeowners by Washington's latest changes in the tax code. 

"With the new limit on state and property-tax deductions on our federal taxes, most of us have lost the 30 percent or so of our property taxes that we used to get back as a reduction on our federal income taxes," Russo wrote. "No more! Getting better control over the very high school taxes on Long Island has never been more critical."

Kathleen Mooney, the Port Washington superintendent, responded in a written statement, noting that the district's spending and tax proposals stay within state cap limits. Mooney added that per-pupil expenditures in her district are among the lowest for districts on Nassau's North Shore. 

"The district has been particularly mindful of the new rules regarding permissible SALT (state and local tax) deductions on federal income tax and their impact on our residents," Mooney stated. 

Cap-busting proposals

Here are the three school systems on Long Island with proposed budgets or propositions for 2019-20 that exceed the district's tax cap.

Eastport-South Manor. Proposed budget carries tax-levy increase of 2.75 percent, which is equal to that allowed under the state's cap restrictions. However, a separate ballot proposition authorizing the hiring of armed guards would raise the levy to a cap-piercing 3.69 percent.

Wainscott. Proposed budget calls for tax increase of 18.5 percent, above the district's 2.93 percent cap.

Wyandanch. Proposed budget would trigger a 40.93 tax increase, above the district's 0.95 percent cap.

Source: School districts

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