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Editorial: School district is doing its homework

District superintendent for finance Anne Marie Marrone Caliendo

District superintendent for finance Anne Marie Marrone Caliendo speaks to an auditorium filled to capacity about the district's finances during an open informational meeting of the Half Hollow Hills school district board of education concerning the 2013-2014 budget. (Jan. 8, 2013) Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

It's school budget prep time, and the Half Hollow Hills district, facing huge hikes in taxes or large cuts to services, took an interesting step: Before drawing up its budget for 2013-14, it surveyed residents.

Half Hollow Hills, which serves parts of Huntington and Babylon towns, has an annual budget of about $222 million. To keep every school open and every program running and staffed, taxes would have to rise 8.5 percent, more than four times the cap on increases.

Would residents want that? It would take 60 percent approval by voters in May to make it happen, and only 52 percent of more than 5,000 survey respondents said yes.

Only 26 percent supported closing one of the two district high schools, which would save $5 million, while 63 percent supported closing Chestnut Hill Elementary School, which would save $1 million. A majority would support closing the district pool in Dix Hills, and eliminating or reducing busing for after-school activities. Moving sixth-grade classes to elementary schools also got majority support.

As the district moves through its budget workshop and public comment process, it's conducting a difficult conversation that a lot of districts will need to have. To its credit, Half Hollow Hills is conducting that conversation with the right people, its residents, and at the right time, before the budget is written and goes to a vote.