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LI school vote: Many districts plan to expand programs in 2017-18

Members of Huntington High School's robotics team are

Members of Huntington High School's robotics team are seen on Tuesday, May 9, 2017, at the school, standing near a robot they designed and built for a national competition. The Huntington school district plans to expand its robotics program in the 2017-18 school year by adding a formal course in the subject. Credit: Jeffrey Basinger

School budgets totaling $12.4 billion that Long Islanders will vote on Tuesday call for expansions in student programs as diverse as Advanced Placement research, robotics, choral singing, volleyball and cheerleading.

Newsday’s annual survey of school budget proposals found that nearly 60 percent of responding districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties — 71 systems — plan at least modest increases in programs, services and staffing for the 2017-18 school year.

Another 27 districts expect to continue operations at current levels, while only 18 project reductions.

The survey, conducted over three months, drew responses from all of the region’s 124 districts, with 116 of those providing details of program and staff changes under proposed budgets.

District-by-district spending plans are available on and in the School Voters Guide in Sunday’s paper, presented in zoned editions. The district election profiles also provide background information on contested school board races that this year include 207 candidates in 59 districts.

Proposed program expansions are accompanied by relatively small hikes in taxes. Average tax levies — that is, collections of property tax revenues — are projected to rise an average 1.73 percent.

Regional school leaders expect the combination of improvements and modest tax increases to result in strong voter support for most budgets on Tuesday. More than 98 percent of districts’ spending plans passed last May.

“I’d be shocked if any budgets go down in our area,” said Kishore Kuncham, the veteran superintendent of Freeport schools, who applies the description “recoup, maintain and enhance” to the coming school year. “If any do, it would be related to local circumstances, board elections or something of that sort. Budgets are generally responsible.”

Advanced Placement Capstone is one program that continues to grow on the Island. The new curriculum, sponsored by the Manhattan-based College Board, seeks to provide students with more comprehensive college-level studies than they can obtain by taking individual AP courses alone and typically begins with a rigorous seminar in the 10th grade.

The districts of East Williston, Elwood, Huntington, Kings Park, Seaford and Shoreham-Wading River all reported plans to launch or expand their Capstone program in the coming school year. Sixteen districts in the region now have the program.

AP Capstone features a seminar course that allows students to examine major issues for a year, and a research course that culminates in a written thesis of about 5,000 words.

East Williston Superintendent Elaine Kanas said The Wheatley School, the district’s high school, would add an 11th-grade research course in the next academic year after introducing a 10th-grade seminar this year.

Alexis Blondrage, Wheatley’s research coordinator, said the school puts a premium on students’ independent research projects.

“I’m looking forward to the ideas that are going to be coming from students,” Blondrage said.

“Bethpage and Farmingdale have announced plans to restore seventh-grade sports teams cut during a previous economic downturn. Lindenhurst is adding fencing to its athletic program, and Levittown is adding junior varsity volleyball and middle school cheerleading.

Technology expansion also continues. East Rockaway plans improvement in its robotics program; East Islip is adding a course in AP computer science.

“I just think this will help students gain better problem-solving skills,” said Paul Manzo, assistant superintendent for instruction and personnel in East Islip.

A major factor behind this year’s low tax increases is the state’s strict property tax cap, first imposed for the 2012-13 school year. That was under a law initiated by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and given bipartisan support by key legislators, including state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), now Senate majority leader.

Since then, Cuomo and lawmakers have provided yearly increases in financial aid to schools that has compensated for restrictions on local tax revenues and has allowed at least modest improvements in educational programs. Next year’s aid increase for the Island is $195 million, or 4.1 percent.

Taxpayer activists on the Island, while still critical of school spending, often acknowledge that the overall system of school finance and taxation is working better than in the past.

“The cap is working. School districts are working within it,” said Fred Gorman, chairman of the Nesconset-Sachem Civic Association, a tax watchdog group. “So thank you, Governor Cuomo. Thank you, Senator Flanagan. That’s all you can say.”

This year, all the school districts in Nassau County and western Suffolk County announced they would stay within state-imposed tax-cap restrictions in 2017-18 — the first time that has occurred. Since caps were imposed five years ago, the number of districts that propose going over their limit has declined.

Only the New Suffolk district on the East End, with about 13 students in kindergarten through sixth grade in a three-room schoolhouse and another 12 in higher grades, is asking local voters to approve a cap override. Under law, such action requires budget passage by at least 60 percent of those voting, rather than the simple majority needed on those who stay within their cap.

New Suffolk’s proposed budget raises its tax levy for 2017-18 by 6.5 percent, well above its 3.4 percent limit. Local school officials have said the increase is driven by an unexpected jump in tuition costs because of enrollment of new students. The district sends older students to the nearby Southold system on a tuition basis, as well as those who need special services such as language instruction.

Seeking to pierce the tax cap

The New Suffolk school district on the North Fork is the only Long Island system seeking voter approval to override its state tax-cap limit to fund its proposed 2017-18 budget.

Overrides require passage by 60 percent of those voting. Property owners in districts that pierce caps do not qualify for state-rebate checks.

Proposed tax-levy increase: 6.5 percent

Tax-cap limit: 3.4 percent

Source: New Suffolk district

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