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Opinion

I would like to bring to the attention of the community some significant changes in New York law regarding school budget votes that will take effect this year. First, in the past, school boards could put up a defeated budget an unlimited number of times. The new law now limits this to two votes. Second, in the past when a school district went on "austerity," a school board could still increase the total budget by any amount it chose, by adding new teachers, by raising salaries of teachers and administrators, and by increasing any number of budget items, excluding a small number of "austerity" items. In effect, then, even after a defeated budget, school taxes could be raised by five percent or eight percent or more, depending on the whims of the school board. Now if a budget is defeated, the new law limits any budget increase to the lesser of four percent or 1.2 times the CPI increase, or about two percent for this year. For the first time in memory, voters can now actually have a meaningful impact on school taxes by voting on their school budget. Third, in the past, some school boards would intimidate parents into voting for bloated school budgets by reminding the parents that a defeated budget would still raise taxes a whole lot (now, no longer the case), while at the same time busing would have to be cut back, field trips would have to be eliminated and extracurricular sports would have to be canceled. Under the new law, none of this applies any longer. School boards now will have total flexibility in where to cut in order to meet an overall budget limitation. The cost of one teacher, for example, equals a 50 percent increase in textbooks and workbooks for the entire school district!

This new law should certainly encourage more residents to vote on Tuesday, May 19, in our school district elections. In addition, as most are aware, the legislature also enacted a school tax relief program known as STAR, which will begin reducing school taxes next year by increasing state aid.

I'd also like to apprise Port residents of a few additional facts. Over the past 10 years, our total non-school taxes increased by only 18 percent. During this same period, our school taxes increased by 75 percent or four times as much! Over the past 10 years, school tax increases have accounted for 85 percent of the total increase in property taxes! If school taxes had increased over the past 10 years at the same rate as all other property taxes, the tax bill for the average Port resident (assessed at $10,000) would be $1,600 less per year, or $130 less per month! In Port Washington, we spend $16,000 per pupil. This is 25 percent more than the average spent by the other 55 Nassau school districts, and this is so in spite of the fact that we are larger than two-thirds of the other district, which affords us certain ecomomies of scale.

In an attempt to bring about more discussion on the subject of school budgets, school costs and quality of education on Long Island, I will be airing on public access television a series of six weekly programs beginning April 1, every Wednesday evening at 9 p.m. on Channel 80 or Channel 96. Among the guests will be civic leaders (including Port's own Steve Schlussel), teacher union leaders, school board members and state legislators. Regrettably, Ms. Cariello, who heads Port's teacher union, declined to appear to present her arguments.

Our town and county governments, as well as most of our special tax districts, have in all honesty done a superb job over the past 10 years in limiting our tax increases (18 percent over 10 years is pretty good, in my view). But our school district, on the other hand, has done an incredibly poor job (a 75 percent tax increase over 10 years). Yes, it is true that there are different factors at play, but far and away the biggest factor has been the failure of our school board to control absurdly high teacher salary levels, poor teacher productivity (one of the lowest in the county) and to fairly take into account the impact of runaway school costs on hard-pressed taxpayers. The Teachers' Contract currently under negotiation will clearly be the major determinant of this year's increase, as well as future years. The cost of this contract is entirely under the control of the school board. In accordance with state law, our school board has full and final say. If the contract is anywhere near the giveaway contract they last negotiated, our runaway school cost problem will continue. If the proposed budget calls for an increase greater than two percent, I will regrettably urge and vote for its defeat on May 19.

Frank J. Russo, Jr



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