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Budget Votes Bring Annual High Anxiety in N.Y.

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The day of reckoning has come for Long Island schools.

For years, the 126 districts in New York state's Nassau and Suffolk counties have put their budgets to a vote of the people in May and June. The elections in those New York City suburbs traditionally were spread over the two months, turnout was generally low, and schools emerged victorious in about 80 percent of the votes.

But this year, Long Island business leaders, taxpayer groups, and the editorial board of Newsday, a leading local daily, pushed to consolidate the votes, and they were set for a single day--May 21. With the newspaper's editors devoting thousands of yards of newsprint to what it calls "Super Tuesday," and other media following suit, the outcomes of what were once predictable votes were anyone's guess.

"When the votes are counted, I think there will be a lot of surprises," said Gerard W. Dempsey, the superintendent of the 5,800-student Farmingdale district in Nassau County.

Adding to school officials' high anxiety about the votes this week was the uncertainty about the revenue figures they used to calculate their budgets. The New York legislature missed its April 1 deadline for passing a state budget, so schools had to calculate their state aid based on what the political tea leaves said legislators would do.

Such estimates are an annual ritual for New York schools--the state has passed a tardy budget 12 years in a row. But delays in approving the federal budget, combined with new proposals to shift some of the state's schooling costs onto districts, made the task particularly tough this year.

In some low-wealth districts, federal and state aid make up as much as 60 percent of the school budget, said William H. Johnson, the superintendent of the 3,300-student Rockville Centre district in Nassau County and the area's unofficial fiscal expert.

"Quite simply, it means that our estimates of state and federal aid are just really wild guesses," Mr. Johnson said.

Budget Season

The Long Island single-day voting is a new twist to New York's already unusual budget season. Only six states require voters to ratify district spending plans--New York, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In New York, districts generally schedule their votes throughout May and June. But on Long Island, some taxpayers groups and business leaders argued that the random nature of the votes dampened turnout.

The Long Island Association, the region's largest business and civic group, first talked in 1993 about putting all the votes on a single day. Last year, state lawmakers from the region introduced and steered into law a bill to make that happen in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

"More than 60 percent of your tax bill here goes to schools," said Valerie Scibilia, a spokeswoman for the association. "The idea is to get more people out to vote. The dates for the votes in the past were all over the place. No one knew when they had to vote."

The editorial board of Newsday also argued for the change on the newspaper's editorial pages.

And the paper's reporters and editors in recent weeks focused attention on the schools, compiling a series of articles in anticipation of the elections. The newspaper has commissioned a poll of public attitudes toward education; profiled key constituent groups of schools such as the teachers' unions; and run pages of statistics that dissected district spending patterns.

"Our view is that this makes these votes like any other election," said Anthony Marro, the paper's editor. "We're covering the same kinds of things that we do for other campaigns."

Big Turnout?

School officials said last week that it was not clear whether the single-day voting or the media attention would boost the number of residents who made their way to the polls. Some said their public budget meetings have been more sparsely attended than in the past.

They also pointed to New Jersey, another state where local school-budget votes are on a single day. Turnout there this year was 19 percent--about the same as that recorded in the Long Island districts last year.

Still, school officials said they were worried that their budget-making process was in the spotlight during a year of great uncertainty. The delays in passing a federal budget meant that some districts prepared budgets without knowing whether they would receive funding from Title I, the program for disadvantaged students that is the largest federal support program for education.

And while the legislative stalemate in Albany over the budget has become routine, Gov. George E. Pataki tossed in a new wrinkle this year. The Republican governor has proposed that districts pick up roughly $250 million in pre-kindergarten special-education costs now paid by the state.

Most districts built their budgets on the assumption that Gov. Pataki's proposal will fail. But if it doesn't, districts will have to pay the new costs by cutting elsewhere in their budgets, not by increasing spending. Once voters approve a district's expenditure plan, spending cannot be raised.

"It's a giant guessing game that's unfair to the voters," said Alice F. Willett, the executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association.

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