The widespread budget passage in the school district elections this...

The widespread budget passage in the school district elections this year isn’t a blank check for the future. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Last week, voters approved the budgets in all but two of Long Island's school districts, including four that will override their state tax caps.

But this year's widespread budget passage isn't a blank check for the future. There is no guarantee that voters will be so tolerant of big tax hikes in years to come. 

That's especially true as districts may face shifting levels of state funding in  2025. Gov. Kathy Hochul this year ultimately restored cuts to some districts that she initially suggested and maintained the so-called “hold harmless” provision that allows schools to assume they'll get as much funding as they've received before. That was the right thing to do. Districts needed more warning and there should have been more collaboration.

State lawmakers asked the Rockefeller Institute to analyze the foundation aid formula, a study that could lead to changes in how the formula is calculated and how much aid is provided. Increases and decreases in enrollments could be more heavily weighted.

An independent study that examines all funding options is needed; the baffling formula needs an overhaul. Hochul and the legislature must be willing to make significant fixes, even if it means some districts on Long Island see decreases in state funding.

But the uncertainty leaves significant question marks for local school districts. More than half the 104 that responded to a  recent Newsday survey said they were optimistic about whether they could fund programs and services in the future. Meanwhile, another 29% said they could not forecast whether their needs would be met, because of the  unpredictability of state funding changes.  

That leaves school districts in a risky time of transition. Even with the success of this year's budgets, district officials and school board members must carefully consider how they spend their funds now and the plans they make going forward. They should pay attention to what happened in West Babylon and Sachem, which each sought tax cap overrides and could not get 60% of voters to agree. Both are aiming for a revote in June. Even if the budgets pass during those second attempts, the two failures should be seen as cautionary tales. 

Amityville, too, is a district worth careful attention. Its final budget came together only after state lawmakers secured $2 million in extra state aid in the waning days of budget negotiations — on top of the district's regular foundation aid, which was already higher than the year before. The district has faced deficits and layoffs and, while its budget passed, its incumbent school board members were not reelected.

School districts across Long Island can't count on last-minute funds from Albany or taxpayers keeping the spigot open.  District officials must budget wisely and be prepared. Next year could — and should — look very different.
Districts and their voters have been warned.  Next time, they won't be able to claim they didn't know what was coming.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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