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School budget votes being held Tuesday

A sign urging for a "yes" vote across

A sign urging for a "yes" vote across from Baldwin Middle School as Long Islanders prepare vote tomorrow on school budget and board elections. (May 20, 2013) Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa

Long Island voters go to the polls Tuesday to vote on nearly $11.5 billion in proposed school spending -- an outlay expected to account for more than 60 percent of property tax bills in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

For many communities, the balloting also will determine if schools can build up programs for the 2013-14 academic year and restore student services eliminated or reduced during the recent economic crunch.

Dozens of districts are seeking to add high school electives, including college-level Advanced Placement courses. Central Islip wants to bring back full-day kindergarten classes for about 550 youngsters who were reduced to half-day sessions in 2010. North Babylon has proposed hiring new elementary teachers to reduce class sizes that have topped 30 students in some instances.

School officials at both the regional and state levels predict a high passage rate for budgets. One reason for optimism: Ninety-six percent of districts statewide, including 94 percent on the Island, have kept within state tax-cap limits, which now are in their second year of existence.

Seven Long Island districts are seeking to override caps: Baldwin, Bay Shore, East Quogue, Manhasset, North Babylon, Sachem and South Country.

"I expect a very, very high pass rate," said Henry Grishman, superintendent of Jericho schools and a former president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. "There's a public appreciation that school districts have tried to tighten their belts."

Results from a statewide survey released last week by the New York State School Boards Association showed that 93 percent of responding board trustees expect their spending plans to pass in Tuesday's voting. Any districts where budgets fail will have a second chance in June.

Timothy Kremer, the association's executive director, said school boards and district leaders had devoted hours to "crafting budgets that balance the needs of students and taxpayers."

Islandwide, proposed spending for 2013-14 would rise an average 3.22 percent, compared with an average 2.29 percent in the current year.

Critics contend, however, that residents who turn out for district meetings often are presented with limited choices, such as keeping or eliminating sports teams that account for only a few thousand dollars in multimillion-dollar budgets.

Those critics, including independent analysts at the state level, note that the biggest driver of school spending for next year is higher costs of a statewide pension system for teachers and other professional staff. Such costs are controlled largely by state lawmakers, whose recent efforts to curb expenses could require a decade or more to take effect.

"Discussions at school budget meetings are restricted to nickel-and-dime matters, while the 10,000-pound gorilla in the room -- employee compensation and benefits -- is not to be discussed," said E.J. McMahon, senior fellow at the Empire Center for New York State Policy, a private Albany-area think tank.McMahon spoke last week at a regional forum in Islandia sponsored by the Empire Center.

Projected increases have left many communities split -- judging, at least from the comments of the relatively few parents, teachers, elderly homeowners and others who have turned out for local budget hearings.

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