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Long Island

LI school tax hikes are among lowest proposed in years

A class of 11th grade regent chemistry students

A class of 11th grade regent chemistry students at Island Trees High School in Levittown on May 9, 2014. Photo Credit: Uli Seit

Long Island's 124 school districts have proposed some of the lowest spending and tax hikes in recent history for the 2014-15 academic year, according to state figures released yesterday.

Spending across Nassau and Suffolk counties would rise 2.27 percent -- the second-smallest average increase since single-day voting on school budgets began on the Island in 1996. The only year since then when proposed hikes were lower was 2.17 percent in 2011-12.

Property tax collections, known as levies, would rise even less -- by an average 1.57 percent. Veteran school administrators described the tax increases, detailed in the report from the state Department of Education, as the lowest in more than 40 years.

Homeowners may find that next year's tax payments turn out to be less than those figures suggest. Aides to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo have promised election-year tax-rebate checks in October covering any increases in school levies for residents of districts that stay within state-imposed tax caps.

Four districts -- Bridgehampton, East Hampton, Sayville and West Babylon -- proposed spending plans earlier this month that would pierce their tax caps, thus requiring approval of budgets by 60 percent of those voting.

Another district, Patchogue-Medford, announced Thursday that its residents would be ineligible for rebates if they approve a cap-busting ballot proposition that is sought by parents of students in nonpublic schools who want to expand bus transportation.

Voting on district budgets totaling more than $11.74 billion Islandwide will be held May 20.

School leaders acknowledged that the curbs on taxation could provide relief for homeowners. Those educators noted, however, that some districts are keeping costs low through staff layoffs, larger classes and cuts in art, music and other elective courses.

"The budgets being proposed this year include belt-tightening in many school districts to meet the levy limits imposed by the state," said Joseph Dragone, an assistant superintendent for business in the Roslyn district and one of region's most experienced administrators.

"It's my hope that most school districts have not had to reduce services to children in order to do this," Dragone added in a phone interview. "But I know that some districts have."

Roslyn's proposed spending and tax increases for 2014-15 both are below 1 percent while maintaining student services and programs.

The proposed school spending hikes, while low by historic levels, continue to outstrip inflation. The state comptroller's office has pegged inflation at 1.46 percent and is using that figure as the base for the 2014-15 tax caps. Under law, the basic cap is either 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is lower.

Long Islanders for Educational Reform (LIFER), a regional taxpayer group, has endorsed proposed state legislation that would further slow spending, by amending state mandates affecting such areas as school workers' pay raises and pensions. The bill's lead sponsor is Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James).

A Thursday forum in Melville sponsored by the organization drew an overflow crowd of both taxpayers and educators, some of whom exchanged barbs during a question-and-answer session.

"We've reached the tipping point, and taxpayers can't stand it any more," Andrea Vecchio of East Islip, a LIFER organizer, said before the forum. "They [state leaders] can't just slap a Band-Aid on it and go their merry way."

Legislative representatives pointed out that they awarded the Island's schools an extra $125.7 million in state financial aid for 2014-15. The 5.63 percent increase was more than double the hike initially proposed by Cuomo, and the largest since the 2008 financial crash.

The infusion of state aid reduced the revenue amounts that districts otherwise would need to raise through property taxation.

Eight districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties have projected either zero tax increases or slight reductions in taxes for 2014-15, according to state data. In 2013-14, only one Island district, tiny Oysterponds in Southold Town, produced a tax reduction, according to the state.

The Island Trees district, serving a section of Levittown, has come in with a zero tax projection for next year. Charles Murphy, now in his fifth year as Island Tree's superintendent, said contributing factors included modest raises in the latest employee contracts and elimination of high school elective courses that didn't draw enough students.

"You really have to keep things tight at the secondary level," Murphy said. "If classes aren't at an appropriate level, they won't run. Where in the past you might have allowed a class of 15, you can't do that anymore."

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