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School taxes across Long Island expected to rise 2.58% on average

Dianna Rivera, top center, assists a group during

Dianna Rivera, top center, assists a group during a Wyandanch school district budget workshop on March 5. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Preliminary forecasts show school taxes across Long Island rising 2.58% on average next school year, with the Wyandanch and Wainscott districts calling for tax-cap overrides that could drive their rates far higher.

Combined taxes for the region's 124 school districts are projected to top $9 billion for 2020-21, according to projected figures newly compiled by the state Comptroller's Office. The outlook is clouded, however, by the spread of the coronavirus and its growing impact on the economy and government revenues. 

In Wyandanch, where voters last spring rejected budgets carrying double-digit tax hikes, a new district administration is putting together a revised plan that, according to a local official, could raise taxes as much as 9.81% in 2020-21. Meanwhile, the tiny Wainscott district, which approved an 18.5% increase in the spring, faces a potential 15.48% jump next school year.

New York's tax-cap law, which took effect in 2012, requires local voter majorities of at least 60% in order to supersede state limits on district taxation.

Under that law, Albany sets annual "baseline" restrictions on growth in local property-tax collections, known as levies. The limit is either 2% or the inflation rate, whichever is lower, and the 2020-21 limit is 1.81%.

Certain dollar items are exempt from the cap, meaning that most districts are proposing levy increases beyond the state's baseline. For example, Elwood projects 5.87% growth next year; Brentwood, 4.5%; Port Washington, 3.96%, and Westbury, 3.94%. 

Exemptions include extra money raised through growth in real estate values. Also exempt is money used to pay off bond loans for school construction and renovation approved by local taxpayers. 

Bond-issue referendums appear to be increasing across the region, according to school leaders who defend such initiatives as efforts to preserve valuable investments. 

"School districts on Long Island have billions of dollars invested in infrastructure, and it would be irresponsible not to keep up maintenance," said Joseph Dragone, assistant superintendent for business and administration in Roslyn.

Taxpayer activists contend, on the other hand, that districts could lessen their need for borrowing, if they paid more attention to routine school maintenance. 

"They are supposed to be maintaining their buildings with the money they get from their regular budgets — that's what a budget is," said Andrea Vecchio of East Islip, founder of a local TaxPac advocacy group.

Preliminary tax-levy plans are collected by the Comptroller's Office in March each year as a sort of early alert system. Districts' final proposals for spending and taxes are reported later, before local budget votes that are scheduled for May 19. 

Typically, districts tend to lower their tax projections in May, after the governor and state legislators agree on a final package of financial aid for schools. However, recent volatility in the stock market and general economy has created a degree of uncertainty. 

On Tuesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo asked Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli to review the state's revenue projections for next school year and advise on the potential impact, given that "the outlook has deteriorated." Under law, a state budget for the 2021 fiscal year is to be adopted by April 1. 

Cuomo's letter made no specific mention of education funding, and a spokesman for the governor's budget division later said simply that the matter was under negotiation. 

One district now in the spotlight is Wyandanch. The 2,800-student system is the poorest on the Island in terms of taxable income and property wealth, and is operating on a bare-bones "contingency" budget, due to voters' refusal last spring to approve a larger spending plan carrying a 20% tax hike. 

On March 5, Wyandanch held a public forum where residents were invited to share their thoughts on which staff positions and programs recently cut should be restored next year. Reductions included 25 teachers, 46 teacher assistants and 13 security guards, the district said.  

Restoration could be funded through a tax-cap override, according to Wyandanch officials. Budget information posted on the district's website shows a range of tax increases under consideration, from 1.81%  on the low end to 15.81% on the high end.

Wyandanch's cap limit next year would be 1.1%, according to data from the comptroller's office, unless a "supermajority" of voters approves a higher amount. Deodat Somaiah, the district's business official, told a reporter the tax hike ultimately chosen probably would not go higher than 9.81%.

Wyandanch's acting superintendent, Gina Talbert, who took over in August, told three dozen residents and employees attending the forum that the district had learned a lesson from last spring's budget rebuff.  

"We heard the voice of the community loud and clear," Talbert said, adding that she was serious about seeking suggestions from the public.  

One parent who came to the meeting, Ana Melendez, a mother of two students, joined others in praising the district's collaborative approach. 

"I think this new superintendent, she strives to work with the community," Melendez said. 

Last month, Cuomo signed into law a measure authorizing the state's appointment of a monitor to oversee Wyandanch's fiscal operations. Lawmakers now hope for a timely appointment.

"I'd like to get this done and get going," said Sen. John Brooks (D-Seaford), a sponsor of the monitor law.

Emily DeSantis, a representative for the state education department, which would handle the appointment, said action was expected "in the coming weeks." 

Tax-cap overrides are a less controversial issue in Wainscott, which operates a one-room schoolhouse serving students living near the East Hampton/Southampton border. Property taxes in Wainscott are relatively low, and last spring's 18% increase passed by a vote of 37 to 13. 

Comptroller's data shows Wainscott contemplating a 15.48% levy hike next year, well beyond its 3.67% cap. 

David Eagan, who is Wainscott's board president, said in a phone interview that a final tax figure had not been set, but definitely would be less than this year's hike. Eagan added that unexpected enrollment increases over the past two years were prime reasons for the overrides. 

Wainscott enrolls 29 younger students in its schoolhouse, while sending older students to neighboring districts on a tuition basis. 

"We expect that, if all things remain the same, we'll be able to catch up this year," Eagan said.

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