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Friday, December 19, 2014

Comptroller: L.I. districts pushed to the fiscal brink

I interrupt your regularly scheduled column to announce that I am on Twitter. Follow me @scottbrinton1. Thank you. Now, back to the show.

New York state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli released a report on Jan. 14 titled “School District Revenue Growth Slows.” Before I get to it, a quick primer on education funding.

School districts are run much like businesses. They take in revenue and incur expenses. If revenues fail to meet expenses, they must cut expenditures. Districts, by law, must balance their budgets.

School districts have a limited number of revenue streams –– property taxes, state and federal aid and, on occasion, rental properties. Generally speaking, expenditures –– salaries and benefits, transportation, building maintenance, electricity and heating oil/natural gas –– rise according to the inflation rate, around 3 percent.

Two of school districts’ revenue streams –– state and federal aid –– have declined for years, forcing districts to raise property taxes to meet expenses. Nowhere has the decline in state and federal aid been felt more than on Long Island. When I began covering the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District 15 years ago, state aid accounted for 19 percent of the district’s budget. Today it is down to 13 percent.

When you suffer that kind of revenue decline from one stream, you must make hard choices. At times, Bellmore-Merrick has raised property taxes. At others, it has cut expenses, including teaching positions.

Here’s the thing about DiNapoli’s revenue growth report: In it, he notes that state aid accounts for 38 percent of districts’ budgets. But he’s not talking about the average Long Island district. He’s referring to the average for all school districts across the state. Here the average is typically much less than 38 percent, as in Bellmore-Merrick, meaning that our districts depend far more on property taxes to fund the schools than anywhere else in the state.

Nassau County school officials have long complained that our districts receive just 25 cents for every dollar we send in income taxes to Albany, whereas many upstate districts get 50 cents, and New York City, more than that.

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