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Long Island

Students back to school amid sharp cutbacks

Students entering kindergarten through fourth grade enter the

Students entering kindergarten through fourth grade enter the Longwood school district's Coram Elementary School on Friday. (Sept. 2, 2011) Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

More than 425,000 students return to Long Island's public schools this week amid the sharpest cutbacks in 20 years: fewer teachers, bigger classes, shorter schedules and losses of programs including sports, art, music, computer technology and BOCES career training.

Not all the Island's 124 districts are feeling the pain equally. A Newsday survey in the spring identified 26 districts that plan class-size increases, and 17 that expect some cancellation of high-school elective courses. A more detailed study conducted later in the spring by the Long Island Education Coalition, a regional umbrella group, found such cuts to be far more common in poor and middle-class communities than in wealthier ones.

Mineola closed its Cross Street Elementary School and reassigned about 800 of the district's 2,700 students to new locations. Elwood and Huntington reduced full-day kindergarten classes to half-day sessions, affecting a total of more than 500 youngsters. Amityville, which opened Thursday, is losing all its high-school business courses, including webpage design and word processing; Wyandanch is losing all its high-school art courses.

Many school leaders fear further downsizing next year and thereafter, as the state clamps a 2 percent cap on property-tax increases. Under the new rules, local taxation will be frozen in districts where voters reject school budgets twice in a row.

"That's going to be an incredible challenge," said Peter Scordo, Elwood's superintendent. He views the current outlook for schools as more daunting than in 1991-92, when an estimated 2,000 of the Island's school workers lost their jobs, mostly due to state-aid cuts.

The solution, school officials say, is increased financial aid from Albany, along with elimination of expensive state "mandates" that boost educational costs. They note that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislators have tentatively approved more aid for the 2012-13 school year, and state tax revenue appears to be rebounding -- a trend that must occur for the state to make good on the pledge of more dollars to districts. Skeptical analysts and taxpayer representatives, however, say educators are exaggerating the financial predicament and must find more efficient ways to operate.

Parents, meanwhile, try to come to grips with the loss of popular student services.

"I can't tell you how many people in this district are extremely upset -- like, devastated -- with the fact that they've done away with full-day kindergarten," said Lisa Lyons, a mother of two in the Elwood district. Parents campaigned successfully just three years ago to put full-day classes in place, she recalled.

In Seaford, parent volunteers are trying to raise $141,000 to restore middle-school sports for the winter and spring seasons. Seaford teams normally fielding 200 players were eliminated last spring after voters in the district twice rejected proposed budgets.

Risa Price, co-president of the group known as Save Seaford Sports, said the cancellation of spring baseball was hard on her son, Hunter, 12, who is entering eighth grade.

"He's played Little League since he was old enough to hold a bat," Price said.

Seaford also is saving money by enlarging classes and canceling test-preparation sessions formerly held before and after school. Students say that since last year, they've noticed the gradual increase in class sizes.

"There are more kids asking questions in class," said Christiana Schmitt, 13, who is entering eighth grade. "Some kids may not have a chance to ask the questions they want."

The cuts in state aid -- $206 million this year and $172.6 million last year, Islandwide -- were part of a broader effort by the state to balance its own budget.

Many school officials hope for at least limited financial relief next spring, when state political leaders -- with one eye on upcoming elections -- approve a school-aid package for 2012-13. A preliminary agreement already in place would allow Albany to increase aid statewide next year by $805 million, or 4 percent. But lawmakers still must work out crucial details of how money is to be split among Long Island, New York City and other regions, and among individual districts.

Aid losses generally hurt most in poor districts, which are the most dependent on state assistance. One hard-hit area is a band of districts across Babylon, Islip and Brookhaven towns that struggle with low property wealth and high taxes.

Brentwood has shed 89 teaching jobs through a combination of retirements and pink slips. Officials there said layoffs would have been even worse had not the local teachers' union given up $900 per person in back pay. Longwood is losing 99 workers, including 47 teachers; William Floyd, 101 workers, including 48 teachers.

Economizing doesn't stop there.

Like many districts, Brentwood, Longwood and William Floyd are cutting back on seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade sports, high-school course electives and other offerings. Longwood has eliminated instrumental music in fourth grade; William Floyd, in grades 3-5. William Floyd has trimmed its middle-school schedules from nine daily periods to eight. Brentwood has done the same at its three secondary schools.

Local administrators wonder how long they can operate without more drastic reductions -- for example, in Advanced Placement courses or varsity sports.

"With the property tax cap, we're holding our breath here," said Paul Casciano, the William Floyd superintendent. "We're looking around saying, 'What's left before we start cutting into muscle?' "

Anthony Pruchnick, 14, of Shirley, is experiencing the effects of cutbacks firsthand. The incoming ninth-grader has started football practice in the William Floyd district, where ninth-grade teams have been merged with junior varsity teams. As a result, Pruchnick, at 5-foot-7, 123 pounds, scrimmages mostly with older teens, some taller than 6 feet and weighing more than 220 pounds.

"They're big," Pruchnick said. "But you try to work as hard as you can, and show what you can do."

Islandwide, the unequal impact of cost-cutting was underlined in a June survey of 101 districts by the Long Island Education Coalition, which includes school boards, teacher unions and other organizations. The study divided districts into three groups: those below the state average in taxable wealth, those in the middle and those well above the state average.

There were wide disparities.

For example, almost 40 percent of low-wealth districts planned reductions in numbers of students sent to occupational-training centers operated by regional BOCES. Only 7 percent of districts of middling wealth, and none of higher wealth, planned such reductions.

"These are programs that lead to college or, in some cases, directly into jobs, or into jobs that will help them pay for college," said Gary Bixhorn, the survey coordinator and chief operating officer of the Eastern Suffolk Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

The same survey showed about 19 percent of low-wealth districts planned significant cuts in high school athletics, while only 3 percent of districts with medium wealth and none of higher wealth planned the same. Many planned reductions have become reality. For example, 77 middle-school sports teams have been eliminated Islandwide, according to regional officials of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association.

While cuts come as a shock to many Long Islanders, the region's schools continue to do better financially than those in other parts of the country.

Recently, the Center on Education Policy, an independent advocacy agency in Washington, D.C., took a look at the spending plans of a nationally representative sample of 450 districts. The center found that 84 percent of those districts expected to reduce spending in 2011-12, with 63 percent cutting spending by at least 5 percent.

In contrast, more than 90 percent of the Island's districts will raise overall spending this year -- by an average 2.17 percent. Only 10 local districts will reduce spending. Most increases are for fixed costs -- for example, contractual pay raises, pension contributions and employee health insurance.

On the question of whether schools here suffer financially, veteran planner Lee Koppelman said that depends "on which end of the telescope you're looking through." He added that Long Islanders have to start thinking seriously about consolidating school districts if they want to save money in the long run. He noted that schools in affluent suburbs of the nation's capital operate successful countywide systems.

"In the eyes of school unions and administrators, the sky is falling," said Koppelman, who is director of the Center for Regional Policy Studies at Stony Brook University. "Long Island has been pretty well off -- really, since World War II -- thanks to the state Legislature. But the time has come when really serious examination has to take place."

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