New York State increased aid for Long Island’s public schools...

New York State increased aid for Long Island’s public schools by $772 million to $4.8 billion for the 2023-24 school year. Yet, school tax bills for most districts increased. Credit: iStock

Gov. Kathy Hochul has introduced a new course for Long Island’s public schools: fiscal accountability.

Her proposal to end the “hold harmless” state policy which guarantees no school district will receive less state aid than it did a previous year sparked furious opposition among Long Island’s school districts.

Now it must spark a serious conversation about those school districts. School and district officials will say that a quality education costs an ever-increasing amount of money every year, even if student enrollment falls, schools are closed, and district buildings are sold. The argument not only defies logic but reveals these taxing authorities have virtually no oversight, accountability, or restraint.

Long Island school districts benefited from $854 million in federal pandemic aid meant to be an emergency infusion in the face of an unprecedented crisis. Now schools are citing the loss of that COVID funding as a reason for their insistence on increased state funding or, they warn, they will cut programs. Expecting endless COVID emergency funding is like a family relying on grandma’s inheritance each year.

Last year, New York State increased aid for Long Island’s public schools by $772 million to $4.8 billion for the 2023-24 school year. Yet, school tax bills for most districts increased. An annual state report found the reserves accumulated by Long Island 120-plus school districts had ballooned to $3 billion in 2022-23, roughly 20% of the schools’ projected spending; the state’s legal reserve limit for schools is 4%. LI’s school districts have amassed small fortunes on the backs of taxpayers in case of a “rainy day,” but when the COVID pandemic occurred, certainly Long Island’s rainiest day in history, these funds were not touched.

Also troubling: At a time when our region must address our decreasing school enrollment, attract a young and vibrant NextGen workforce, generate additional tax revenue, and increase affordability, many districts have objected to multifamily developments that would address these crucial challenges. The irony is that over time, their classrooms will continue to empty as young couples flee the region, shrinking the tax base and guaranteeing that school taxes increase as graduating classes decrease.

Hochul’s proposal has a simple message: We must create financial accountability and responsible governance among the school districts that represent 64% of our property tax bill. Schools must not be dependent on state or federal aid to preserve academic excellence. They ought to use excess reserve funds and find synergy savings with other districts.

Kings Park Schools Superintendent Timothy Eagen said Hochul’s proposal would cost the district $850,000 in state aid. Yet, according to the state Department of Education, Kings Park amassed $29.2 million in total reserves by the end of 2022-23, a 19.86% change since the prior year, and almost $4 million in unrestricted reserves. The facts don’t support the district’s rhetoric or its suggested balance sheet.

As a product of Long Island schools and father of two young children, I believe in the excellence of our region’s educational system. However, there is not a member of my generation who is not concerned about their school tax bill.

Hochul is forcing the region to face the crisis we’ve refused to acknowledge for decades. Everyone on Long Island wants good schools and low property taxes, but our current system makes it appear that we must choose one or the other. Long Island has the means to achieve both, and it starts with fiscal accountability for all.

  

THIS GUEST ESSAY reflects the views of Kyle Strober, executive director of the Association for a Better Long Island.

This guest essay reflects the views of Kyle Strober, executive director of the Association for a Better Long Island.

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