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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

It's wrong to ask voters twice a year for school funding

Voters line up to cast a ballot in

Voters line up to cast a ballot in the advisory vote for the proposed annexation of the Tuckahoe School District, at the Southampton Intermediate School in Southampton, Nov. 18, 2014. Photo Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Since Election Day, barely a month ago, residents in at least six Long Island school districts have gone back to the polls to vote on bond issues.

Voters in Copiague, Middle Country, Lindenhurst, Manhasset, Center Moriches and Plainview-Old Bethpage weighed in on bonds ranging from $8.8 million to $125.2 million.

Four of the proposals passed, two were rejected. Voters in Shoreham-Wading River have a poll date on Jan. 13. Each of the seven bond issues involves repairs, renovations and/or upgrades to school buildings.

So, hats off to the winners, condolences to the losers, and good luck to Shoreham-Wading River.

But why are we voting on these now?

This isn't anything new, mind you. School districts have always held bond votes on dates other than the third Tuesday in May, when residents in every school district in the state vote on budgets and board members. And I've always wondered: Why not vote on them together?

For the districts, it's a matter of focus. They say they want May's voters to concentrate on the budget and only the budget and not have to think about anything else. Bonds are put up separately so voters can concentrate on special projects and only special projects and not have to think about anything else. (This contributes to Long Island's ridiculously crowded election calendar, a topic for another week.)

Some critics say holding separate bond votes is more of a problem these days because more districts are putting up bonds -- to get around the strictures of the tax cap. But districts have always put up bonds for big projects, and the timing is somewhat cyclical, related to such things as the age and condition of buildings and, especially, the availability of state aid to defray costs. Some years there's more aid, some years there's less.

Understand: I'm not arguing the merits of any of these bond proposals. The question is the timing of the ask.

If you want to say, as critics do, that districts split their budget and bond votes to maximize the chances of each passing . . . well, yeah. If you want to contend bond votes are held when residents are paying the least attention, like December . . . well, that's factually true.

And such strategies are understandable. Many school districts have financial troubles and votes are precious. I get that. Really, I do.

But taxpayers have troubles, too. We're like school districts in that respect, struggling with a tough economy and conditions beyond our control. We all seek financial certainty.

For taxpayers, that means knowing what we're paying. If you're going to ask us twice to reach into our pockets, do it at the same time so we know all of what we're being asked to pay. We're on a budget, too.

And if you do that, we must respond in something other than knee-jerk fashion. A publicized bond request can't be met with a reflexive no. Because many school districts have real problems. Buildings are aging. Roofs leak, boilers burst. Some buildings desperately need security upgrades. Others need new technology to better serve students. This isn't about increasing the chances that bond issues fail; it's about transparency and fairness and giving taxpayers a clear and comprehensive picture of a school district's finances.

As Long Islanders, we care intensely about education. Most of our tax bill is school taxes. And that's pretty much the only chance we have to vote directly on how we're taxed.

So let's make a deal. Ask us for all the money you need on the third Tuesday in May. And we'll consider carefully the request. We can do this.

It's a matter of respect, and that's a two-way street.

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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