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Freeport school taxes could rise again

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The Freeport School District will likely be forced to raise its tax levy for the second straight year because of inadequate state aid, district officials said at the Feb. 10 Board of Education meeting.

Last year, the levy — the total amount that the district must collect in taxes to meet expenses — was raised by 2.92 percent, the first time the district had increased it after lowering the levy for the previous five years. 

While the district is allowed to raise the levy by as much as 3 percent, officials said they would not do so, understanding the financial hardships that many Freeporters are experiencing.

“It’s incumbent that we think about the challenges our families and taxpayers are facing this year due to the pandemic,” said Gabriela Castillo, a Board of Education trustee. “This is going to be an interesting year as we go into the budget season.” 

Schools Superintendent Dr. Kishore Kuncham said state aid would be a challenge for the district in 2021-22. While Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s tentative state budget for next year projects about $2.1 billion in aid for schools across the state, a 7 percent increase over the current budget, Kuncham said the direct aid that schools would actually receive would be reduced by $600 million, including Freeport, which is expected to lose $400,000 in state aid.  

District officials said there would be a loss because the state consolidated 11 expense-based aid categories, which are now listed simply as shared services aid. The merged categories include Board of Cooperative Education Services, textbook, software, library materials, computer hardware and technology, supplemental excess cost, transportation, special services, academic enhancement, high tax and charter school transitional.

Meanwhile, foundation aid, the largest form of state aid, which accounts for a district’s per-capita income in its formula, will remain flat next year, at $56 million. Kuncham said foundation aid is as the most important form of state aid for Freeport, but noted that the district has not received its fair share of it for the past decade. 

“Freeport continues to be shortchanged year after year,” Kuncham said. “Every year we lose about $45 million that we should be getting in foundation aid. Just imagine what we could do with that.” 

The pandemic has only aggravated Freeport’s budget challenges, as district officials do not know how much the state might receive in federal assistance to offset the cost of fighting the coronavirus, and thus do not know precisely how much Freeport might be awarded. If the state were able to receive the $15 billion in federal aid that it has asked for, district officials said they hoped Freeport would receive more state aid for education.

“This will definitely be a most challenging year,” said Ernest Kight, the Board of Education president. “It’ll be a lot of work. It always is, but it really feels different this time.” 

District officials said they would join other school leaders across New York in lobbying state officials for more state aid ahead of Cuomo’s final budget proposal, which is due April 1. 

Freeport officials will review the district’s preliminary budget proposal at the Feb. 24 Board of Education meeting, which will also include a list of capital improvement projects to be completed with $2.5 million from the district’s capital reserve fund. 

Budget meetings will then continue throughout March and April. Residents will vote on the budget and capital reserve proposition on May 18.