Voters approved school budgets in 116 Long Island districts on Tuesday, often by lopsided margins, with four budgets failing.
Three districts — Bridgehampton, Three Village and Wantagh — where budget votes failed had attempted to override the state tax cap. The budget for Northport-East Northport also failed, though that district was not seeking to override the cap.
Across the Nassau-Suffolk region, proposed school budgets for 124 districts total a combined $13.75 billion. Those spending plans cover the 2021-22 fiscal year, which begins July 1. Four Island districts, voting early on May 11 because of the Jewish holiday, already had approved their budgets.
"What we're seeing is some lower turnout, but also tremendous support in some districts," said Lorraine Deller, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association. She added that the approval rate demonstrated public understanding for the strains faced by schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Montauk, for example, voters approved their budget by a 109-9 tally. The $20.5 million budget there carries a tax increase of 0.59%.
A total of five districts on Long Island sought to override state cap restrictions on their tax levies, which required a 60% majority vote. In one of them, Sagaponack, voters approved the budget 23-2.
"The community always has supported our program, and they demonstrated that tonight," said Alan Van Cott, the Sagaponack superintendent.
Islip was the other district attempting an override, and the 1.37% hike passed 796-448.
"We are proud of the well-rounded academic, social and emotional environment we have created in our schools, and the passage of the 2021-2022 budget will continue to allow us to offer our students an exceptional learning experience," Islip Superintendent Ellen Semel said in a statement.
In Bridgehampton, which has pierced state tax caps in the past, the vote fell just short of the required 60%. Bridgehampton's $20.6 million budget, with a 8.93% tax hike, received 150 "yes" votes and 103 "no" votes, a 59.3% majority.
Ronald White, the school board president in Bridgehampton, said he and other trustees are discussing the question of whether to put up the same budget or a reduced version for a revote in June.
"We as a district will do a better job of reaching out to all stakeholders to provide information that will give a better understanding that we're working efficiently on their behalf," White said.
In Wantagh, the vote was 1,202-1,165, or about 51% — also short of the required 60% majority for a cap override. John McNamara, Wantagh's superintendent, said the school board "is going to get more comment from the community before deciding on the next step."
In the Three Village district, the vote was 2,286-1,677, or about 58%, just short of the 60% needed.
"The budget process is a collaborative one and we respect the voice that our community has in that process," the district said in a statement Wednesday. "The Board of Education and administration will be reconvening in the coming days to discuss the outcome of the vote and review the district’s options."
A district experiencing a budget defeat has the option of revoting on the same budget, revoting on a revised budget, or skipping a revote and adopting a so-called contingency budget that freezes taxes at the previous year’s level.
In Northport-East Northport, the budget failed, with 2,069 voting no and 1,902 voting yes.
"We recognize that this vote represents feedback from our community, and we take this feedback very seriously," district Superintendent Robert Banzer said in a statement. "The district is committed to presenting a budget that focuses on providing our students with the high quality education they deserve while simultaneously being conscious of our fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers."
A focus on heated board races
Most voter participation was on-site, in contrast to last year's elections that were conducted by mail-in ballots as a precaution against COVID-19 infection. In addition to budgets, this year's ballots featured heated board races in Smithtown and Port Washington, fought largely over issues of school reopenings and race relations.
Port Washington's contest featured three challengers who last fall helped organize protests that pressured the district into reopening elementary schools five days a week. Two of those challengers, Adam Block and Adam Smith, won seats, along with another candidate, Nanette Melkonian, while three incumbents, including board president Nora Johnson, lost.
In Smithtown, a trio of challengers — Stacy Murphy, Karen Wontrobski-Ricciardi and John Savoretti — ousted an incumbent trio.
In that district, irritation among many parents over what they regarded as the slow pace of school reopenings has been an issue. But more recently, the focus of debate has shifted to the question of whether the district has gone overboard in efforts to encourage sensitivity among white students to conditions facing Black people and other minorities.
Islandwide, 406 candidates were running for school boards.
A boost from federal, state aid
Many districts, like in William Floyd, were offering residents modest tax breaks in their proposed budgets, while at the same time calling for expanded spending on school repairs, staffing and student services.
Parent Daphne Vaughan, of Shirley, agreed with William Floyd's plans to use $5 million of reserves for districtwide school repairs.
"They are basically going to be fixing the buildings up. That is always important," said Vaughan, who voted at William Floyd High School on Tuesday morning.
William Floyd's budget passed 1,323 to 458.
Growth this year in federal and state financial assistance is allowing many districts to schedule improvements ranging from increased tutoring to upgrades in school ventilation systems without raising property taxes to pay the costs.
Hempstead schools also are freezing taxes, while restoring about 55 jobs for teachers and other staff that were eliminated in the recent past. Central Islip, meanwhile, is cutting taxes by six-tenths of 1%, while expanding summer programs at both elementary and secondary levels and providing additional Chromebook electronic tablets to students.
Local school administrators described tax breaks as especially appropriate during an economic slowdown triggered by the pandemic.
Across the Nassau-Suffolk region, a total of six districts were calling for small tax cuts. Tax freezes were proposed in another 14 systems.
Meanwhile, the great majority of districts are raising taxes, but at a lower rate than was forecast several months ago, before the unprecedented scope of new federal and state assistance payments became known.
Islandwide, projected taxes for next year are going up an average 1.38%, the lowest rate hike in five years.
Spending proposals submitted to voters did not include federal stimulus money, which is handled separately and spent at the discretion of local school officials following national guidelines.
With Joan Gralla