Students eagerly head to their first day of school. (Sept....

Students eagerly head to their first day of school. (Sept. 2, 2010) Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

In the Half Hollow Hills school district, fewer students will be able to get professional arts training this year.

In Wyandanch, elementary school classes could be larger - some by as much as 25 percent.

And students in Lindenhurst already are missing teachers who have been let go.

"It just makes school that much harder," said C.J. Thomson, 16, a junior at Lindenhurst Memorial High School who is upset over the recent layoff of a favorite math teacher. "I struggle in math, and she broke it down in ways that I could understand."

Across Long Island - in districts rich, poor and middle-class - students returning to class this week will be dealing with the fallout from the greatest financial challenges local school districts have faced in two decades: challenges that in some districts have led to teacher layoffs, larger class sizes, fewer class choices, reduced summer school, fewer sports teams or shortened kindergarten hours.

The cutbacks - the most widespread since the early 1990s - came in response to unexpectedly high cuts in state operating aid, coupled with mounting pressure to offer taxpayers relief by capping local property taxes that provide more than 70 percent of school revenues.

And local educators warn the situation could get worse: Federal stimulus money that has provided a substantial share of school revenues since the onset of the Great Recession - $106.7 million this year alone - is due to run out in June. That is, unless an increasingly reluctant U.S. Congress eventually agrees to an extension.

Already, dozens of districts have trimmed services. Central Islip, for example, opens this week with kindergarten classes shortened from full-day sessions to half-day - a move affecting about 550 youngsters.

Sports teams cut

Connetquot has eliminated 11 ninth-grade sports teams that previously enrolled up to 130 players. North Babylon has eliminated five of 10 teams in its seventh- and eighth-grade program, along with four ninth-grade teams. North Babylon's move potentially affects 150 to 180 players in all, though older teens will be allowed to try out for the junior varsity.

Half Hollow Hills, one of the Island's most affluent districts, recently cut back on the number of students allowed to take professional training at a regional BOCES performing arts school. Consequently, five local families were informed that their teens, who had hoped to enroll in the arts school as juniors this year, will have to wait until they're seniors instead.

One parent, Karen Isaksen Taylor, said her daughter, Johanna, 15, broke down and cried when she got the news. The teen aspires to a career in dance and had hoped the extra year of professional training would help her win admission to a competitive college program.

"I can't tell you how devastating it was," the mother added.

The neighboring Wyandanch district, one of the Island's neediest, recently laid off 15 teachers. As a result, district officials warn that elementary class sizes could jump from 22 students to more than 28, making it more difficult to prep youngsters for state tests.

"Classrooms are going to be too cluttered, which hurts a lot," said Cathy Chandler, a Wyandanch mother of five who recently joined a local protest march against state aid cuts. "A lot of the kids need one-on-one help."

For students and educators, the loss of young teachers and the services they provide has cast a shadow over many upcoming school openings.

"Really, there's nothing we can do," said Ashley Walker, 16, a high school junior in Lindenhurst who was disappointed when the district laid off 37 teachers in June, after district and union officials failed to agree on contract concessions. Walker and other students opposed the layoffs at school board meetings last winter.

Teacher representatives also voice regret over job losses.

"It's been tough," said Barbara Hafner, the teacher union president in West Hempstead, where a dozen teacher jobs have been shed. "Students are going to get the short end, because now they have fewer class choices and larger class sizes."

A Newsday survey found the Island's 124 school districts planned to shed more than 1,400 teachers and other staff this year through layoffs or attrition, though some could be rehired later this month or next, through a last-minute infusion of federal jobs money.

"Well, we're hoping President Obama's money will come in, and we can save some jobs," said Therese Rogers, the union chief in Levittown, where about 13 teachers are out of work. "Everybody is very upset to see a colleague out of a job."

In at least 10 districts, teachers have agreed to givebacks - including partial pay freezes in some - to help preserve jobs.

Some districts not cutting

Smaller payrolls do not necessarily translate into fewer services for students. Newsday's survey found at least 33 districts planned no program cuts at all - in part, because job losses were offset by an accelerating enrollment decline.

But economic pressures are prompting questions at school board meetings over whether districts are doing enough to curb salary increases - the biggest factor in school costs. Newsday's survey, which obtained detailed salary information from 45 districts, found the median pay increase for teachers was 5 percent - more than triple the current inflation rate.

"We're going into tough times, and it doesn't look like there's much new money ahead," said Andrea Vecchio, an East Islip taxpayer activist who advocates cuts in school salaries and employee benefits. "Some real givebacks are the least they can do."

Deals struck in better times

School officials respond that they are negotiating lower raises than in the past - even partial freezes in some cases. They add, however, that many districts still are paying contractual increases agreed upon several years ago when the economy appeared to be humming.

"Contracts don't always open when you want them to," said William Johnson, superintendent of Rockville Centre schools and a former president of the State Council of School Superintendents.

In any case, continued economic troubles and political upheavals in Albany are forcing local school leaders to rethink some long-held assumptions about the level of financial support they can expect from the state - and also from their own taxpayers.

"The year we're entering is probably the most difficult we've faced in 20 years," said Gary Bixhorn, a regional policy analyst and chief operating officer for Eastern Suffolk BOCES, headquartered in Patchogue. "Three or four years ago, all this would have been virtually unthinkable.

"And it could have been even worse," Bixhorn added, "had the federal government not stepped in with the extra money. But you have to wonder how many times this can be repeated."

One jolt came last month, when legislators finally agreed on a state budget that was 125 days late and that closed a deficit gap, in large part, by cutting school aid. Long Island's state operating aid is expected to drop this year by about $198.2 million - or 8.2 percent - though losses will be partly offset by $89.3 million in new federal jobs money.

What especially surprised many was the failure of state lawmakers to add any money to the package originally proposed by Gov. David A. Paterson in January. Lawrence Levy, executive director of the nonpartisan National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said he couldn't remember such an outcome in 30 years of watching Albany politics.

Suburban schools might get a bigger share of aid next year, Levy said, if Republicans recapture control of the State Senate in November. But he acknowledged political volatility and taxpayer unrest make predictions difficult.

"Once legislators have tasted blood in cutting school aid," Levy quipped, "they may realize that it doesn't turn them into vampires."

Latest videos