Good Morning
Good Morning
Long Island

LI schools plan to expand staff and services

Carmen Bernier, an ESL science teacher at Freeport

Carmen Bernier, an ESL science teacher at Freeport High School, teaches a genetics unit in her science class, May 13, 2015. Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

Long Island school districts plan to add more than 500 new teachers and other staff for the 2015-16 academic year, mostly to boost instruction for Spanish-speaking students or restore art, music, sports and other programs cut during the Great Recession.

The proposed expansions of staff and school services -- the biggest since the 2008 financial crash -- are included in district budgets that total more than $11.9 billion Islandwide. Newsday collected details as part of its annual survey covering spending plans and school board races in public school districts across Nassau and Suffolk counties, compiled in the 2015 School Voters Guide.

Voting on budgets and school board candidates will be held Tuesday statewide. Poll hours vary by district.

Seventy-one of the Island's 124 districts indicated plans for more hiring in survey forms that school officials returned to Newsday. The upbeat employment forecasts are in marked contrast to conditions in the earlier part of the decade, when the region's schools saw layoffs totaling more than 1,000 workers annually.

Brentwood's proposed budget, for example, calls for adding 36 teachers and other professional staff. William Floyd and Roosevelt each projects 28 new hires. Freeport and Seaford expect to add about 20 positions apiece.

"We're really excited about that," said Brian Conboy, the Seaford superintendent, adding that a major aim is reducing class sizes in the elementary-school grades. "Really, for the last six years, we've been cutting back, and this is the first time we've actually been able to expand programs."

Not all districts anticipate further hiring. Hempstead expects reductions of about 100 jobs next year, and Eastport-South Manor plans to shed more than 20 positions.

Despite such scattered losses, Newsday found, the bicounty region as a whole should wind up with a net gain of at least 400 school jobs in the fall.

Statewide reductions in school pension costs are a big help for districts seeking to expand programs without large increases in overall spending. School budgets on the Island are projected to rise next year by just 1.69 percent -- the smallest increase on record for the region.

The state tax cap

Staff and program cuts of recent years also have been driven by the state-imposed property tax cap, which first went into effect for the 2012-13 school year. Districts that do not bring in spending plans below their tax-levy limit -- a figure that is different for each system and is determined by the state through a complex formula that excludes capital expenses and some pension costs, among other items -- must get 60 percent approval of those voting rather than a simple majority.

If a cap-busting district does not get a 60 percent supermajority, it must decide whether to submit a spending plan that exceeds the cap for a revote or trim it to within its levy limit. A system's spending is frozen at current levels if voters twice reject budgets.

Albany's continued use of the tax cap, as well as tax-rebate incentives, is encouraging local districts to control costs for local homeowners.

Only two districts, East Meadow and Patchogue-Medford, have propositions on their ballots that would lead to overriding their respective tax caps. Five districts attempted overrides last year, and 17 districts made such attempts in 2012. Of the five override tries last year, two succeeded.

A major focus of school spending increases next year will be expanded classes for immigrant students with limited English skills.

Some classes are being set up on an ad hoc basis to deal with an influx of unaccompanied minors from such countries as Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua who entered the country illegally and were resettled with relatives or sponsors here. Other classes will comply with a statewide policy change, approved in September by the state Board of Regents.

The new regulation requires bilingual instruction to be provided whenever 20 or more students at the same grade level, and speaking the same language, are enrolled in a single district. The change expands New York State's services for immigrant youngsters beyond what is required by federal law.

Freeport school officials said that four or five new hires would give bilingual instruction, while Roosevelt plans to add 10 teachers for that purpose.

Carmen Bernier, 49, who formerly taught in California, began working in Freeport in October to teach bilingual high school science classes. Bernier, in a phone interview, said she has found that most Spanish-speaking teens pick up conversational English within six or seven months of arriving in this country, but that mastering academic English can require up to five years.

"Every day, I tell them, 'You must work hard. You cannot give up,' " said Bernier, who added that she initially had difficulty understanding American accents when she moved to the United States from Puerto Rico. "I think my students are almost convinced. At first, they were begging for Spanish in class, but they ask less and less every day."

'A banner year'

Along with lower pension costs, the Island's school leaders cite a recent $157 million increase in state aid to the region's schools as contributing to healthier financial conditions.

"Oh, it was a banner year!" said John T. Powell, assistant superintendent for business in Great Neck. The district added 13.5 teaching positions this year and has budgeted for an additional 10 in the coming school year, largely with the aim of maintaining small class sizes.

The state aid, approved last month by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state lawmakers, comes with strings attached. A district will get the new money only if it stays within its tax cap.

Homeowners, meanwhile, will receive a second round of state tax-rebate checks starting in the fall, but only if the district in which they live complies with both state tax caps and new state "efficiency" requirements -- another Cuomo innovation. Albany mailed out the first checks this past fall and winter.

Cuomo administration officials said initial checks averaged $230 per household in Nassau County and $113 in Suffolk County. Officials added that the second batch of checks should average more than double the initial amounts, because they will represent rebates for two years' worth of school tax increases, plus one year of municipal tax hikes.

The state's efficiency plan works like this: School districts, municipalities and other local government entities must submit forms to Albany, showing they will achieve cost savings equivalent to 1 percent of their property tax collections in each of the following three years. June 1 is the deadline.

Ways to save

Savings can be achieved in a number of ways -- for example, through district mergers, shared services or modified union contracts. Some school financial experts see particular potential in the latter approach.

As an example, those experts cite new contracts signed last fall between four districts in the Valley Stream area and their teacher unions. Those agreements lowered annual step raises, which are built into salary schedules and formerly averaged about 2.4 percent a year. The increases would have been paid automatically under a state law known as the Triborough Amendment.

Bill Heidenreich, superintendent of the Valley Stream Central High School District, estimated that the reduction in steps will save $2.5 million over five years in his system alone, and will protect his district and others against future raises that would be unsustainable under the tax cap.

Patrick Naglieri, president of the Valley Stream Teachers Association, which represents about 800 professional school workers in the four districts, also sees benefits in the new contracts. For one thing, teachers at the top of the salary scale, who would not have been eligible for step increases, instead will get limited raises.

"Another fact to consider is that we saved programs for the kids, which benefits the whole community," Naglieri said.

Statewide groups representing school administrators and other educators have denounced the governor's "efficiency" program as gimmicky. Those groups also have complained that caps on local tax revenues make districts overly dependent on state aid, which tends to get reduced whenever Albany faces a fiscal crisis.

"People don't know from one year to the next what they're going to get," said Deborah H. Cunningham, director of education and research for the New York State Association of School Business Officials.

Taxpayer groups, on the other hand, have consistently praised Cuomo's efforts to curb school spending and taxes. These groups noted that Cuomo gradually restored aid cut in the past as the state's financial health improved.

"Thank you, Governor Andrew Cuomo," declared Vincent Sciacca, president of the Sunset City Civic Association in North Babylon, in a recent article written for the group's newsletter. "I believe the governor is truly trying to save the taxpayers money on Long Island and for that I commend him, he is the first."

Latest Long Island News