Monday, May 07, 2007

More State Aid To Long Island School Districts. . .

. . .Not Much Relief In The Bottom Line

When it comes to State Aid, the 2007-08 school year looks to be a bonanza.

Record dollars flowing in to
Long Island's school districts, as the island's legislative leaders show their clout and flex their muscles.

And yet, while many of the island's 124 school districts are offering modest increases in the proposed tax levy, with rare exception have any of Long Island's multitude of school district's held the line, and only a single district, Sachem, is calling for a decrease in the tax levy.

Talk of caps on increases, a bigger rebate under STAR, and emergency aid -- all stop-gap measures, at best -- belie the greater magnitude of this big ticket issue known as the school property tax. The preferred remedy continues to be the loosely placed band-aid over the festering, flesh-eating wound.

Homeowners need relief, meaning, an across the board cut in school property taxes, as the taxpayer cannot sustain even modest increases year-to-year.

Ah yes, relief. A respite from high property taxes. Reprieve. Liberation.

School districts, particularly on Long Island, must look to the homeowner to bridge the gap between what it costs to provide a quality education and what the state legislature is willing to dole out in aid.

Truth is, even with record aid from Albany, Long Island's school districts are only able to tread water, holding the line, at best.

Query what will happen next year, in the 2008-09 budget, when the legislature may not be as benevolent, and dollars from Albany may not be as plentiful.

Oh, you'll get you're rebate check all right. A rethinking and reformulation of the way we pay for education in New York State, may not, on the other hand, be so readily forthcoming.

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The vote on school budgets will take place next Tuesday, May 15th. VOTE!
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School Financing
Increased State Aid or Not, Districts Seek Higher Taxes
By Ford Fessenden

In spite of record increases in state aid for next school year, most districts in Westchester and other New York City suburbs have proposed property tax increases well above the rate of inflation. District officials say they are handcuffed by big annual increases in teachers’ salaries and the rising cost of pensions, health insurance and energy.

Westchester is to get $49 million more in state aid — an increase of 9.4 percent — in Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s 2007-8 budget, which was passed by the State Legislature on April 1. Nassau and Suffolk Counties will get $220 million more in state aid, an increase of 10.1 percent.

But the districts say that is nowhere near enough: In Westchester, officials have asked for $122 million more in property taxes to meet their costs, an increase of 5.6 percent. On Long Island, the districts have proposed another $300 million in property taxes, a 4.7 percent increase over 2006-7.

Residents will vote on the proposed budgets on May 15, and school officials expressed confidence that most would pass. Last year, when the average increase was higher, more than 80 percent in the region were approved.

The burden of additional taxes will fall much harder on some taxpayers than others: A few districts in the region that received especially large grants of state aid are proposing little or no increase in taxes. The Sachem Central School District on Long Island, which proposed an 18 percent increase two years ago, only to see its budget rejected twice, has proposed a budget that would result in a drop in taxes.

“Whatever monies we got from the state, we applied to tax relief,” said Bruce H. Singer, Sachem’s assistant superintendent for business.

In North Salem, the interim superintendent, Sidney A. Freund, applied a budget surplus from last year to bring the tax increase in the district to 1.3 percent, the lowest in Westchester. The district also used a small increase in state aid to reduce taxes.

“I didn’t go back to my board and say let’s spend it,” Dr. Freund said. “It’s being used to provide tax relief.”

In Mamaroneck, the school district received only a small increase in state money under the formula for next year. The board has proposed a 6.7 percent tax increase.

“A lot of the increase is in mandated costs, contractual salary increases, special education,” said Joan Rosen, the district’s public information director.

In all, 132 of the 156 districts in Westchester and on Long Island that have reported tax proposals to the state are asking for increases of more than 3 percent. Inflation over the last year has been about 3.25 percent, and the state budget projects inflation over the next year to be 2.2 percent.

In Eastchester, where state aid rose more than $500,000, the school board put the additional money into a rainy day fund instead of reducing the tax bill. The superintendent, Robert C. Siebert, has proposed raising taxes by $2.8 million.

“The board decided, on my recommendation, to reserve the additional money for next year to hold down next year’s tax levy,” he said.

But many districts said they had applied at least some of their state aid to tax reduction, although in Westchester, that did not make much of a dent in fast-rising costs.

Some superintendents said they see little or no possibility that tax increases will fall within the rate of inflation any time soon, even with increasing state aid.

“We can’t cut back on a lot of things unless people are prepared to accept a lower standard,” said Howard W. Smith, the superintendent of the Tarrytowns school district, where the budget calls for a 6.4 percent increase in the tax levy. “If you want teachers with talent and ambition and drive, you have to give them an opportunity to make more money every year.”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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