First-ever tax caps will be put to the test in Long Island's public schools as districts reopen this week, and some fear those tighter restrictions could erode the region's well-known academic quality.
Whether the caps, cushioned this year by larger infusions of state financial aid, ultimately prove beneficial or harmful is a subject of growing debate. The caps were authorized in 2011 by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state lawmakers, and have limited property-tax growth this year on the Island to an average of 2.6 percent.
Cap supporters, including the Island's taxpayer representatives, note that the new limitations already have produced the lowest property-tax increases in more than a decade. Supporters add that the caps in future years can bring major relief to heavily taxed homeowners, especially if districts hold spending to reasonable levels.
Opponents note that the 2012-13 academic year is opening with fewer teachers and that class sizes in many districts -- especially poorer ones -- are at least slightly larger. Those critics, who include most of the Island's school officials, add that educational quality could suffer more serious damage in the years ahead unless schools get relief from state-mandated costs.
John Diviney, 52, a former school board president in the Three Village district, said he has reviewed projected costs there for the next several years and concluded that schools cannot meet rising expenses with the capped tax revenues likely to be available. Three Village eliminated more than 100 slots for teachers and other employees this school year, largely due to cap pressures.
'On a collision course'
"You're on a collision course where it's just not going to work," said Diviney, referring to the clash between caps and the rising costs of pensions and other employee benefits.
Regional analysts acknowledged that this year's cutbacks do not appear quite as severe as those in the 2011-12 school year, when the state trimmed school aid to the Island by $206 million. For this year, in contrast, the Island's state aid is rising nearly $90 million.
Analysts noted, however, that staff reductions imposed this year come on top of cuts already in place. A preliminary survey of 90 districts released last week by the Long Island Education Coalition, a group including school superintendents and district boards, found that such reductions are widespread.
Districts reported, for example, that they eliminated a combined total 1,230 positions for teachers and other employees, including 680 who were laid off. As teachers were shed, the number of districts with elementary-school classes averaging 25 students or more rose from 8.4 percent in the 2011-12 school year to 14.3 percent currently. Thirty-two percent of districts with low taxable wealth reported elementary classes with more than 25 students.
Gary Bixhorn, an Eastern Suffolk BOCES executive who coordinated the survey, said that tax caps, coupled with increases in mandated costs such as employee pensions and health insurance, "could lead to even larger class sizes, further reduced course offerings and elimination of important programs like full-day kindergarten."
Cuomo has characterized such warnings as exaggerated. The governor's aides point out that schools statewide have been promised another $712-million increase in state aid for 2012-13, on top of the $805 million appropriated this year.
Aides added that caps have given local voters more say in how much money their districts spend. Under the cap law, any increase in taxing beyond state-imposed limits must win a 60 percent voter majority, and two consecutive "no" votes result in a tax freeze.
Law has supporters
Morris Peters, a spokesman for the governor's Budget Division, said in a statement that the new law has "led to more conversation between school districts and taxpayers about funding needs."
A regional analyst, Michael Dawidziak, who heads a polling and political consulting firm in Bohemia, said he gets concerned when he hears educators warning that tax caps are unsustainable.
"Why do school officials never say, 'Well, maybe administrative costs are a little high and maybe we could cut back a little,' " Dawidziak added. "And the reason is that they want to scare people by threatening the quality of education for children."
A combination of caps and falling enrollments has prompted many districts to economize. In a small but growing number of districts, those economies are taking the form of shuttered schools and hundreds of reassigned students.
North Bellmore and Smithtown both closed elementary schools in June. West Islip shut down two schools. Mineola has moved the last students out of its Willis Avenue School, though it continues to maintain administrative offices there.
The Comsewogue district, which serves Port Jefferson Station, has reorganized its four elementary schools by concentrating grades K-2 in two buildings and grades 3-5 in two others. Formerly, all four schools contained grades K-5. The shift involves more than 700 students and saves an estimated $1 million through more uniform class sizes.
Last week, many of those youngsters and their parents toured their new schools during open-house sessions. At Boyle Road Elementary School, parents admired brightly decorated hallways and desks topped by students' name cards, as well as two new science labs added to meet the particular interests of students in grades 3-5.
Some parents said, however, that they were saddened by teacher layoffs that accompanied the reorganization. School officials said they would bring back as many of those teachers as possible as slots open up.
One parent, Jacqueline Dennis, 33, said she also was concerned to hear that her daughter, Autumn, 10, would be pulled out of recess for band practice, though this is a fairly common practice in many districts.
"It's just the little things that make a big difference," Dennis said.