Now’s the time to speak up on school budgets


As far back as 1993, there was talk at the highest levels of government of consolidating Long Island school districts to save money and provide greater resources for the Island’s poorest districts.

That debate is likely to be resurrected in the wake of the Republican tax overhaul passed by Congress and signed by President Trump last month. The GOP plan eliminates most of the deductions for state and local (property) taxes, while also nixing the deduction for interest on home-equity loans. In effect, housing just got even more expensive for Long Island homeowners than it already was.

Already we are seeing some talk of consolidation in district budget discussions. That talk is likely to intensify when homeowners realize the extent to which the GOP plan will impact their personal budgets — and that the upcoming income tax cut, which will offset the loss of deductions in the short term, will expire in 2025.

A quarter-century ago, a Long Island University-C.W. Post study, “A Closer Look at Long Island’s Public Schools,” found that the smaller the school district, the whiter and wealthier it was, and the greater the number of resources it provided for students. Then Gov. Mario Cuomo and Assemblyman Jerry Kremer, who is now a Herald columnist, jumped on the study, insisting that it provided the objective data they needed to help make the case for consolidation, according to The New York Times.

Back then, Roosevelt spent a little more than $8,000 per pupil, while Jericho spent twice that. Not much has changed. Jericho still outspends not only Roosevelt, but also just about every other district. Jericho’s per-pupil spending is $35,792 per year, compared with $26,207 for similar school districts and the statewide average of $22,556, according to Jericho’s own budget brochure.

In the coming weeks and months, local school districts will plan and lay out their 2018-19 budgets, deciding how to allocate their precious resources in the form of student programming. Taxpayers have a right to say how they believe that money should be spent. Residents are the ones, after all, who pay for the schools.

We strongly urge homeowners to get involved in their districts’ budget processes by attending meetings devoted to reviewing school spending plans, while also writing us letters to the editor to express their thoughts. Let’s get a conversation going!

In recent years, districts have had to make tough choices as financial pressures on schools have mounted. Rising health insurance and pension costs, implementation of the property-tax cap and declining state aid have meant cuts in programs and staff, and in some cases, closed schools.

This year, we can be thankful that state aid for education is projected to rise. But given the rapidly changing state of the federal tax structure, which will inevitably affect decision-making at the local level (meaning in our school districts), it’s more important than ever that people stay informed and speak up and out.

School district consolidation, if it ever came to pass, would be a monumental change for Long Island’s districts, which have, for a century, acted independently, with hyper-local representation on boards of education. Consolidation, whatever form it might take, would bring larger districts with enormous budgets that would require even greater vigilance than is needed now.

Consolidation would be a long-term, and likely tumultuous, process. In the shorter term, we could very well see at least some school districts looking to scale back programming to rein in expenses and more tightly control property taxes — yes, more tightly than is already the case.

It’s more important than ever for school trustees and administrators to hear from the public when planning next year’s budgets. School officials want to produce spending plans that will earn residents’ support in the May 15 budget vote, which is why residents need to be involved in the process early. District officials’ decisions on how to spend taxpayer money need to reflect the community’s needs and wants.

Whether or not you have children in the schools, you have an investment in the public education system. Budget meetings are listed in your school calendar and on the district’s website. Get involved by making it a point to attend at least one budget session in your district in the coming months.