As school districts on the East End of Long Island attempt to tackle the conundrum of trying to provide competitive services for students, while keeping spending in line to appease taxpayers, initial proposals by state government for school-tax relief have some district’s wondering if they won’t be left at a disadvantage.
At the Sag Harbor School Board’s last meeting, on September 8, the board encouraged a room full of administrators, parents and teachers to attend a meeting at the Center Moriches High School on Monday, September 22, hosted by New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. The forum will focus on proposals concerning state education funding and school taxes – an issue state officials have been wrestling with in an effort to provide taxpayer relief without leaving school districts in the financial lurch.
The Center Moriches forum is the last of several meetings Thiele, and state Senator Kennneth P. LaValle, have hosted to speak with members of the community about proposed legislation to provide property tax relief. Forums were held last week in Bridgehampton and this past week in Springs on the same issue.
The legislation, which is based on a report issued in July by the New York Commission on Property Tax Relief – a commission headed by Nassau County Executive Thomas Souzzi – aims to provide property tax relief in two separate bills in the New York State Senate and Assembly.
The commission submitted a preliminary report, which was accepted by Governor David Paterson, who has been vocal in his support for the tax cap, earlier this year. The final report will be submitted on December 1, 2008.Â
The commission argues that New York State has the highest local taxes of any large state in America and is 79 percent above the national average.
The state senate bill would impose a cap of four percent on a school district’s property tax increase. The district can override the cap with a vote of 55 percent majority, or a 60 percent majority if the district has received an increase of five percent or more in state aid that year. The state senate bill applies to virtually every school district in the state, save Buffalo, New York, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers.
The assembly bill, on the other hand, provides a refund based on the household income of a family and the percentage of property taxes compared to that income. The assembly bill states that families taking in $90,000 or less would be eligible for a 25 percent refund on the taxes that exceed five percent of their income. A sliding scale provides similar relief for families making between $90,000 and $250,000, although at smaller rates.
“There are certain critical issues regardless of what the final bill looks like,” Thiele said on Wednesday of the proposals. “Property taxes need to be reduced because we can’t ask people to make the decision over their home or education.”
Â “The concerns of the superintendents are that they won’t have adequate funding,” Thiele continued, summing up what a number of school district administrators have expressed publicly in the last two weeks about the cap in particular. “But we will work with the state to come to a consensus during the budget next year.”
Â “Property tax reform is an issue that can’t wait,” he added.
The Suffolk County School Superintendents Association expressed their concerns with the proposed tax cap last week and asked for increases in federal aid. The tax cap, they added, could become problematic in the event of large increases in class sizes and could lead to teacher layoffs.
Â “I think its poor legislation and should not be adopted for several reasons,” Dr. John Gratto, Superintendent of the Sag Harbor School District said on Wednesday. “First of all it is based on false premises that school boards are unable or unwilling to provide or limit expenses.”
“I think school districts are the best example of democracy,” he continued. “This will take away local control.”
“We may need to spend more because of increased fuel costs or other transportation issues,” said Gratto of some of the situations district’s could find themselves in if faced with a four percent cap. “In that case, services to students would have to be cut to cover these costs and the impact on the students could be very detrimental.”
Bridgehampton School District Superintendent Dr. Dianne Youngblood echoed Gratto’s concerns, although she noted that she is still researching the legislation and has yet to attend a forum due to scheduling conflicts.
Youngblood cited county research that showed that a four percent cap could in reality translate to a two percent cap in spending increases after contractual increases in health insurance and energy costs are factored in.
Youngblood noted the financial crisis Wall Street has faced in the last week has painted a bleak economic picture her district has been trying to anticipate for some time now.
Â “These are frightening times,” she said. “We realize that something needs to be done regarding taxes and school budgets and I think at Bridgehampton that is why our board and our administration has tried to be at the forefront of talking about choice in education on the East End. Some change is going to have to come about.”
The district has been in ongoing discussions about sharing services and has even discussed a charter-like school system on the East End on a theoretical basis.
“I think those of us at the table, we are all just wrestling with these issues,” said Youngblood. “But let’s really talk about this [proposal] and ensure whatever is put in place is not only in place for taxpayers and residents. We have to make sure students and districts don’t get squeezed in the process.”
Additional reporting by Kathryn G. Menu