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Tuckahoe school budget fails; Elwood passes

A woman arrives to cast her vote on

A woman arrives to cast her vote on the Tuckahoe district's revised budget at the Tuckahoe School in Southampton on Tuesday, June 21, 2016. The district is holding a revote on its 2016-17 budget. Credit: Randee Daddona

The tiny Tuckahoe school district failed Tuesday in its second attempt to override its tax cap and will be forced to freeze taxes as a result — the first Long Island district to experience such consequences under New York State’s strict cap law.

The vote on Tuckahoe’s revised $19,293,000 budget was 215 “yes” to 186 “no.” The positive margin of 53.6 percent was larger than in the first round of voting in May, but still well short of the 60 percent that state law requires for districts seeking to exceed their caps.

The Elwood district also was holding a revote Tuesday, and its revamped $59,458,599 budget passed with ease — 1,577 to 326 — for an approval of 82.9 percent. That system stayed within its cap limit and the budget needed to pull a simple majority vote to pass.

School board president Andrew Kaplan said, “We’re delighted with the positive result, and can move forward for the new school year.”

In Tuckahoe, school administrators and parents alike reacted to the defeat with surprise and sorrow.

Allan Gerstenlauer, the district’s part-time superintendent, said school board members probably will meet Monday to discuss their next move.

“I’m disappointed with the results,” said Gerstenlauer, a veteran administrator who earlier served as superintendent in the Longwood district. “The results speak to the difficulties school districts face in operating under a tax cap. The allowable tax-levy increase for Tuckahoe was about one-third of 1 percent, which is simply inadequate to fund school operations in any sustainable fashion.”

Before the revote, local officials had announced that rejection of the revised spending plan would force the district to suspend purchases of new equipment and draw down on cash reserves in order to maintain student programs and class sizes at current levels.

Theresa Caulfield, a mother of twin sixth-graders attending Tuckahoe School, expressed dismay when told of the budget’s rejection.

“Without meaning to sound cliched, the children are our future, and if we don’t invest in them, then we’re just not investing in our future in general,” Caulfield said.

Tuckahoe’s defeat came despite a last-minute get-out-the-vote effort by parent volunteers, who called an estimated 200 residents on Monday night and Tuesday morning. Many voters unmoved by the appeal said they objected to the district’s insistence on trying to exceed the state’s tax restrictions.

“If there’s a cap, there should be a cap, and it should be observed,” said Jim Wallis, a sales representative who has lived in the district for 26 years.

Other budget opponents complained of the district’s unsuccessful efforts in recent years to consolidate with the neighboring Southampton system.

“I think it would be beneficial if Tuckahoe and Southampton could merge,” said Tony Vassallo, a local business owner.

Tuckahoe, located in Southampton Town, enrolls 350 students in preschool through eighth grade in its single school building, and sends older students to Southampton High School on a tuition basis.

Over the past 10 years, the district has experienced dramatic demographic changes, with its proportion of Latino students rising from 30 percent to 60 percent.

The state’s cap law, first imposed in 2012, basically limits school districts’ annual tax increases to the inflation rate or 2 percent, whichever is lower, with exemptions for certain expenses such as interest payments on bond issues. Cap limits this year were the tightest since the system went into place, because of unusually low inflation.

Under law, districts failing to get 60 percent voter support in two tries face tax freezes the following school year.

Such instances are rare. In the current 2015-16 year, only two districts — both located in the state’s far North Country — have been forced to hold taxes level due to budget-vote losses last spring.

Tuckahoe and Elwood were among nine districts across the state holding budget revotes Tuesday, according to the New York State School Boards Association. A total of 676 districts statewide, with 124 of those in Nassau and Suffolk counties, held initial budget votes last month.

Tuckahoe’s revamped budget called for a 1.75 percent increase in total tax collections, known as a levy, for the 2016-17 school year. That was well beyond the district’s allowable 0.38 percent tax cap — though less than the 2.48 percent raise in the proposed spending plan that voters rejected May 17, in the first round of voting.

At that time, Tuckahoe residents voted 146 to 145 in favor of the district’s $19,533,000 plan, which carried a 2.3 percent spending hike. The bare majority vote was far short of the 60 percent required for passage. The defeat came despite attempts by the district to economize by eliminating a summer school program that usually enrolls about 100 children.

Elwood, like Tuckahoe, tried to override its tax cap in the first round of voting last month and failed. Its margin of defeat was smaller, with 1,132 yes to 805 no on the initial $59,891,409 budget. The 58.4 percent majority was just short of the 60 percent needed.

With that outcome, Kaplan said, “The board got the message.”

Trustees in the midsize district, which enrolls about 2,270 students in Huntington Town, trimmed the spending request to a 0.04 percent decrease from what the district appropriated this year.

At Elwood Middle School, a steady stream of voters arrived soon after the polling place opened at 2 p.m.

Julie Testa, a resident of Elwood for 10 years who has two children in the district, voted in favor of the district’s first proposed budget in May and pulled a repeat performance Tuesday. She was the first one to vote.

“It’s important for the children, for the school, for the community,” Testa said. “It’s not just about the kids. It is about all of us.”

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