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Million-Dollar Question

Wed, 05/15/2024 - 18:46


Last year, voters in the Wainscott Common School District twice rejected a sharp increase in the school tax levy for the 2023-24 school year, plunging the tiny district into an austerity situation that was difficult for the school and its students and parents to cope with. What the voters did approve, a year ago, was a separate proposition for an additional tax levy of $1 million retroactive to the previous fiscal school year, 2022-23, to pull the district out of a financial deficit caused by an unusual and temporary bump in enrollment that year. The exact phrase describing this separate proposition in last year’s legal notice was this: “Ordinary Contingent Expenses for Fiscal Year 2022-2023.”

It appears that Wainscott School officials have now built that one-time additional tax levy into their revenue base for next year. A budget breakdown sent by the school district on April 8 to our education reporter describes that $1 million as “2023/24 additional levy proposition” — note the change in the year there — and it was added into the base tax levy as the starting place upon which the district built its 2024-25 spending plan.

It is unclear why Wainscott is able to do this, when voters did not approve any increase to the base tax levy last year. Indeed, that’s what the public’s “no” vote on the school budget meant: no increase to the tax levy.

Our attempts to answer this question have not been successful. An inquiry to the Office of the State Comptroller was referred to the New York State Education Department, which did not reply. We asked elected officials and business administrators in other school districts about it on background, and no one wanted to weigh in.

Our reporter checked in with the Wainscott School District last week. The superintendent, Deborah Haab, responded this way: “It is something that we vetted through our legal counsel and the proper channels to make sure we were proceeding appropriately.”

Ms. Haab also said, “We’re not asking for another million dollars this year. That becomes our new base for our property taxes moving forward.”

In our view, though, the district is asking taxpayers for another million dollars this year. Yet in the budget documents the district published, the tax levy increase falls within New York State’s regulations and will require only a simple majority of voter approval.

To be clear, we’re not telling residents to vote “no” on the Wainscott budget. As we wrote in an editorial last week, we don’t believe this is the right moment to plunge students in any of our South Fork schools, who are still feeling the reverberations of the Covid-19 pandemic, into austerity. And in Wainscott, in particular, it would only harm the children in a district that already operates with the lowest school tax rate in the area. What we are suggesting is that this is an issue that should be examined more closely before taxes are levied for the 2024-25 school year.


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