Failed N.Y. Power Plant Fuels Budget Battles

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Eight years ago, one--and perhaps only one--of 71 school districts in Suffolk County, N.Y., was sitting pretty.

While most of Long Island's other systems were reeling from recession-induced cuts to state aid, the Shoreham-Wading River district spent $17,435 per pupil in 1991, more than any other district in the state and easily double the state average.

But what made the district almost recession-proof in 1991 is what lands it in a predicament today: a nuclear-power plant that generated lots of tax revenue. The Long Island Lighting Company abandoned the plant--which never opened for business--a decade ago, and its subsidies are dwindling.

As a result, district officials asked voters in the mostly middle-class community last month to approve an extraordinary 48 percent increase in their school property taxes. And not very surprisingly, voters said no.

Now observers are divided over whether the rule of fiscal conservatives will prevail for the foreseeable future, or if parents worried about a decline in school quality will mobilize in an effort to alter the current balance of power on the school board.

Tax PAC or Kidpac?

"I think [parents] are starting to organize," said Elizabeth Hendrey, a school board member whose term expires next month. "A lot of parents are coming to board meetings, more than you would normally expect."

Ms. Hendrey, the mother of an elementary school pupil, favored the defeated $32.7 million budget proposal, which included the tax hike. She lost her seat in the election to an opponent who was critical of school spending.

She points to other Long Island communities where parents have rallied, often forming independent groups that go by the common name Kidpac, which stands for Kids, Parents, and Community. Kidpac is a play on Tax PAC, an area organization that lobbies for curbs on government spending and has chapters across Long Island.

During this decade, Tax PAC and other, nonaffiliated groups with similar aims have won control of at least nine area school boards and seats on another half-dozen or more. But in many instances, teachers' unions and newly formed parent groups came back to oust those who wanted the strictest controls on the budget.

Marie Hodess

Marie Hodess, a Shoreham-Wading River board member who won re-election on an anti-budget platform but was not backed by a formal anti-tax group, sees a different future for the district. She regards herself as a fiscal moderate and says that angry taxpayers are the ones likely to be up in arms. "If we had not gotten elected," she said, "next year [the school board] would be looking at Tax PAC."

Singular Situation

It's true that Shoreham-Wading River's situation is singular.

Even in Suffolk County, where the suburban good life of neatly trimmed lawns and backyard barbecues was practically invented, the district has stood out for the wealth of its schools. And most of the wealth flowed from the Shoreham nuclear-power plant.

The 2,300-student district is largely devoid of commercial and industrial property, except for the plant, which has been paying tens of millions of dollars in property taxes to the district, the town of Brookhaven, and other municipalities since construction began in 1973. In the peak year of 1992, some $28 million, or 90 percent of the tax revenue from local sources, came from the Long Island Lighting Company, the plant owner.

With that money, the local schools could afford small classes, special programs such as a trip to Madrid for Spanish students, facilities extras like lighted tennis courts and a small television studio, and materials galore.

But then, for safety reasons, the state government bought the plant and never allowed it to open. In a deal with the state, the utility company had even before that agreed to cushion the blow of the shutdown on local taxing authorities with $330 million in diminishing payments over 10 years, ending in 2001.

School leaders have cut spending and tried unsuccessfully to get more aid from the state. In May, they asked for the unprecedented 48 percent increase in school property taxes. For a typical homeowner in the district, the increase would have added about $1,100 a year to the current property-tax bill of about $2,300.

That's still less than property owners in many nearby districts pay, but projections also call for major additional increases in Shoreham-Wading River by 2002.

School officials have one more chance to get voter approval on a spending plan before going to an "austerity" budget, where certain expenditures are prohibited by law. Administrators are readying budget scenarios for the tax-minded board that voters elected in May and that takes office July 1.

In other Long Island districts, school advocates say the crisis brought on by taxpayer outrage has waned, partly because parents and others have countered the view that schools have been profligate spenders and partly because the economy has improved.

This spring, 94 percent of proposed district budgets on Long Island won voter approval, said Alice Willett, the executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association.

"The tide seems to be turning" in support of schools, added Valerie Cafarelli, the director of the Suffolk District PTA.

In Ms. Cafarelli's district of Sachem, parents formed a Kidpac group last year to get a school budget passed after four years of austerity budgets. The parents drew on the experience of a Kidpac in neighboring West Islip, recruiting board candidates willing to tax a little more for the schools.

The Kidpac candidates won, defeating opponents who had pledged five years of no school-tax increases, and a new budget was approved.

This year was "pretty quiet" by comparison, Ms. Cafarelli said. Both the school budget and a bond referendum for new school buses won voter approval, she said.

Vol. 17, Issue 41, Page 3

Published in Print: June 24, 1998, as Failed N.Y. Power Plant Fuels Budget Battles
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