Three Village schools Superintendent Cheryl Pedisich at a school board...

Three Village schools Superintendent Cheryl Pedisich at a school board meeting last month.   Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Three Village's school system, after two unsuccessful budget votes, has adopted a $220 million contingency budget that freezes property taxes for a year.

The school district, which serves the Stony Brook and Setauket communities, is the only one on Long Island forced to operate under contingency restrictions during the 2021-22 fiscal year, which started July 1. Statewide, the only other district forced to take this step was Carmel in the lower Hudson Valley.

New York State's tax cap law, in effect since 2012, requires contingency measures of any district where residents reject spending plans twice in a row. Three Village's board on July 7 formally adopted its budget, which holds property tax collections to $162 million during the current year, the same as collected in the school year just ended.

Three Village had tried twice to pass a $222.6 million spending plan carrying a 1.85% tax increase. The proposed tax hike exceeded the district's state-assigned cap and required approval from at least 60% of residents in order to win adoption.

Instead, public support plummeted as debate over levels of spending and taxation in the 5,400-student district dragged on. In May's first round of voting, the tally was 2,286 "yes" and 1,677 "no," or a majority of about 58%, close to the 60% needed. By June's second round, support was down to 2,027 "yes" and 3,211 "no."

Following the second rebuff, local school authorities including Superintendent Cheryl Pedisich pledged to take more time explaining their financial priorities and options to residents. The effort included a board workshop on June 23, when elected trustees and administrators spent more than an hour discussing details of how the district might trim spending, including possible cuts in staff and high school elective courses.

Even some residents critical of Three Village's past actions praised the new open approach.

"That's what a school board should do — conduct discussions in an open, transparent way that helps the public understand the thought processes and considerations behind the decisions that are being made," said Carmine Inserra, owner of a locally based computer-services firm.

Inserra also serves as first vice president of the Three Village Chamber of Commerce.

What happens next in the district depends largely on health factors and state government decisions beyond its control.

At the June 23 workshop, trustees agreed tentatively to proceed on the assumption that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state health officials will drop their requirement that schools maintain 6-foot distancing between students as a precaution against COVID-19 infection. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention already have recommended 3-foot distancing.

Three-foot distancing would allow Three Village to save money by letting go of teachers hired temporarily to supervise smaller classes, while avoiding the need to cancel elective courses, local officials said.

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