During the recession, taxpayers, school districts and municipalities have been forced to take a look at just what is putting a strain on our wallets. Taxes on Long Island have been a debatable issue for years, but residents, if they haven't already done so, must ask whether the services they are receiving are worth the price tag?
Take the issue of Long Island school taxes, the major part of the property tax bill. Sure, administrators and teachers on Long Island command good salaries. After all, they are entrusted with a community's most precious resource - its children.
But, what may really be driving the cost of education on Long Island are small populations in schools and school districts covering a small area. Nassau County, with 56 school districts, places seventh among counties in the nation in terms of the number of schools districts per county. One of those 56 school districts, the Mineola School District, has seven schools servicing approximately 2,700 students.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing educationally. Small school sizes can give students more attention than large class sizes. A policy brief from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) from June 1998 cites research showing academic benefits to small class sizes.
The Mineola School District has set guidelines for staffing in order to keep its class sizes low. From kindergarten to second grade, there is a teacher for every 22 pupils, rounded up to the nearest whole number. A student body of 145 pupils would command seven teachers for an average of 21 students per class. For grades three and four, there is one teacher per 24 pupils and grades five and six, it's one teacher per 26 pupils.
Even in these tough economic times, the Mineola School Board and district are taking measures not to increase class sizes as they formulate a budget for 2009-2010.
The school board had considered closing one or two of its elementary schools but was met with some resistance from parents at board meetings as well as a special meeting held in the high school auditorium. It's clear that those residents who have students in the school system want their children to have the best education possible and rightly so. What school districts are grappling with now is providing the best education for the amount the community can afford. It's a difficult balance since in communities with diverse income levels, the amount of school taxes community members can afford differs.
The financial situation of New York State is a grim one. School districts began planning their budgets with an expected shortfall in state aid. Since the governor's initial budget proposal, it looks as though state aid will be restored to current levels. But is this just a one-year BandAid on the serious problem of funding public education?
The Mineola School Board and school district is trying to keep the tax levy increase of the school budget for the 2009-2010 school year as well as future budgets under 4 percent, which is what the proposed state cap would be.
The Long Island Index points out in a 2008 study, "School Finance on Long Island" by Trudy Renwick, that the rate of growth of spending for Long Island school districts has slowed from 7.5 percent from 2003-2004 to 2004-2005 vs. 5.1 percent from 2007-2008 to 2008-2009. The growth of tax levies has also slowed during those periods. However, school taxes have continued to escalate.
The Mineola School District has thus far proposed a budget for the 2009-2010 school year that calls for a $1,096,674 increase in spending, a 1.4 percent increase from the 2008-2009 school year, which is sure to be one of the lowest increases in Nassau County. However, using an enrollment figure of 2,700 students in the district, it is still a $406 increase per student. But when it comes to school taxes, Mineola School District residents don't have it as bad as some other communities since the Mineola businesses community is easing some of the burden. According to the Long Island Index, which cites the New York State Education Department and the Fiscal Policy Institute, in 2005, the Mineola School District had the fourth highest commercial and industrial tax revenue per student on Long Island at $10,620.
Still, the Mineola School District and School Board will grapple in the next few years with whether it can deliver their educational program the way it currently exists. Long Island may be approaching a time when residents will have to rethink how school districts deliver its educational program whether it is the consolidation of school districts or the closing of schools.
In the upcoming months, the Mineola School District would be deciding whether it should close a school for the 2010-2011 school year. With spending increasing due to increasing costs placed on school districts, anything less than increases in funding from the state will cause school boards to make difficult decisions.