Support our schools — get involved in their budgeting

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Most of the services districts offer are mandated by the State Department of Education. The so-called “extra” programs that have made Long Island districts great –– science research, art and music, sports –– are not mandated, meaning that, in a pinch, they can be cut. School officials warn that such programs, long proven to enrich students’ learning experience, could go by the wayside in the coming years if the tax cap remains in place.

Each year, districts’ expenses –– salaries, pensions, health insurance premiums, fuel oil –– rise with inflation. Those expenses must be covered. Districts have just two sources of income –– property taxes and state aid –– to do that. Over the past decade, state aid has failed to keep pace with inflation, so it has accounted for an ever smaller portion of schools’ budgets. The only way districts have been able to sustain programs has been to increase property taxes. Now they are limited by the cap.

Something has to give, and, sadly, it appears, student programs will be cut — if not in 2013, then in the next few years. A number of districts have drawn down their rainy-day reserve funds in order to meet expenses. With reserves depleted, many districts will have no choice but to reduce staff and eliminate programs.

That would negatively affect the quality of our schools, which could be disastrous for Long Island home values, which are only now starting to recover after the housing crash of recent years. Young families move here for three main reasons: our beaches, our safe neighborhoods –– and our great schools.

In the coming weeks, school boards will hold budget hearings to discuss their spending proposals for 2013-14. We urge residents to attend one or more of them. Make your voices heard. Tell school officials how much your children’s and grandchildren’s programs mean to them –– and to you. And, equally important, write to your state legislators and point out the devastating long-term effects that the property-tax cap could have on schools. Urge lawmakers to set a date for the cap to “sunset,” which would restore our school boards’ ability to decide matters for themselves in the best interests of their constituents –– namely, the children.

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