Districts budget for improvements, aim to keep taxes low

Spurred by record boosts in state and federal financial aid, dozens of Long Island school districts are budgeting for improvements — from extended class schedules to purchases of laptop computers — while keeping tax hikes relatively low, a Newsday survey finds.

Islandwide, 124 districts are proposing average spending increases of 4.17% for 2022-23, the highest in more than a decade. Meanwhile, average tax collections known as levies are due to rise only 1.54%, because extra state money is picking up much of the added costs.

School budgets totaling a combined $14.3 billion on the Island will be up for votes on Tuesday, along with more than 400 board candidates and scores of spending propositions. Proposed spending would total about $7.5 billion in Suffolk County and $6.8 billion in Nassau County.

Most polls open between 6 am and 7 am and close between 9 pm and 10 pm in Nassau and western Suffolk. In eastern Suffolk, many polls open in the early afternoon and close at 8 pm or 9 pm

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Long Island school district hold votes Tuesday on budgets and board trustees, as many systems boost staffs, programs and student services with the help of record hikes in state and federal aid.
  • The impact of aid is most dramatic in the region’s neediest districts, which are raising budgets by double digits, while holding tax hikes to 1% or less.
  • Only two tiny districts, both on the East End — New Suffolk and Wainscott — are seeking voter permission to override state tax caps.

State assistance to the region will rise nearly $457.6 million next school year — more than double the typical annual increase — to a total $4 billion. The current year’s aid increase was nearly as large, and similar growth has been projected for 2023-24, assuming the economy remains healthy enough to support this.

The massive three-year aid package from Albany reflects a historic agreement, reached by state lawmakers last year, to raise income taxes on millionaires and use much of the revenues to boost school aid. The ultimate aim, supporters said, is generating enough money so that every district in the state, regardless of differences in wealth, can provide students with sound and basic educations as required by the state’s constitution.

“The state, at long last, did the right thing by aiding our high-needs districts,” said Michael Cohen, a former Brentwood school superintendent and education analyst. “Now, it’s up to those districts to produce measurable academic progress.”

The bulk of the state’s assistance is distributed according to a “foundation” aid formula, which emphasizes the needs of students who speak limited English, have disabilities or are otherwise disadvantaged. As a result, some school systems with the neediest students are experiencing financial turnarounds, after years of cash shortages. Many districts also are still drawing on millions of dollars in federal pandemic relief, due to expire in September 2023.

On the Island, for example, five high-needs districts are proposing dramatic spending hikes of 10% or more, while holding tax increases to 1% or less. Those systems also are calling for major upgrades in programs and services.

The Brentwood district, Long Island’s largest with more than 18,000 students, is proposing that its high school extend class time from eight daily academic periods to nine. Copiague, meanwhile, seeks to allocate more than $10 million through a capital transfer to complete several potential projects, including an addition to the Susan E. Wiley Elementary School.

Copiague’s superintendent, Kathleen Bannon, noted that proposed upgrades in that district’s facilities and student support services would be accompanied by a zero tax increase.

“Following years of underfunding for the Copiague school district, its students and its community, the district has worked strategically to ensure Copiague’s students receive a quality education on par with their peers in neighboring districts,” Bannon said in a statement.

At a recent community meeting in Hempstead, Superintendent Regina Armstrong spoke about the district’s plans for expanding its International Baccalaureate academic program, building an addition to its middle school and removing deteriorated portable classrooms.

“Are we perfect? ​​Absolutely not,” Armstrong told an audience of about 100 parents and school staffers. “But are we trying to get greater? Yes, we are!”

Fourth-grade classmates Ashley Alvarado Mazariegos (left) and Jada Marshall (center) work on...

Fourth-grade classmates Ashley Alvarado Mazariegos (left) and Jada Marshall (center) work on their Chromebooks at Lawrence Middle School on May 2.
Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

District wants to buy 2,000 Chromebooks

Roosevelt has called for the purchase of 2,000 new Chromebook computers, for establishment of college-level Advanced Placement courses in calculus and psychology, and for about 20 new professional staffers, including teachers, guidance counselors and social workers.

“We are ever-so-mindful of improving the academic achievement of our students,” Roosevelt Superintendent Deborah Wortham said in a phone interview.

Wyandanch seeks to hire four new teachers and 18 teacher aides, while also adding sports teams, field trips and media centers at its high school and middle school. Superintendent Gina Talbert described her district’s budget as a “pivotal tool” for helping students achieve their full potential.

With state aid abundant this year, no school systems in western Long Island are seeking to raise revenues further by overriding state tax caps. Such actions require approval by at least 60% of local voters, under state law.

Only the tiny districts of New Suffolk and Wainscott on the Island’s East End have called for overrides. New Suffolk is seeking a 7% tax increase, and has a 2.1% cap. Wainscott is seeking a 10.7% increase, with a negative 1.3% cap.

School leaders in those eastern districts contend their small size leaves them susceptible to drastic changes in revenues or expenses, forcing them to exceed caps. Wainscott’s board president, David Eagan, in a recent letter to residents, said his district faced this year a substantial increase in the costs of educating students with disabilities.

“We also ask that you consider the facts that unlike larger neighboring districts, Wainscott must fund our budget almost entirely through our tax levy since we do not receive any meaningful state aid,” Eagan wrote.

Dollar figures for district spending and taxation were calculated from state Department of Education numbers, as well as Newsday’s reporting. Details on school spending were provided to Newsday by the districts.

Newsday asked in questionnaires if districts planned to add staff and programs next school year, or make reductions. Of the 73 districts that responded, 60 indicated they planned net additions or restorations in staffing, programs or both. Only 13 districts said they planned net reductions.

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