Twenty percent of Long Island’s 124 school districts face some degree of fiscal stress — the highest concentration for any region in New York, state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli said in a report released Thursday.
The report identifies 25 local districts — 19 in Suffolk County and six in Nassau — as being hit by dwindling reserve funds or other financial troubles during the 2014-15 school year. The number of districts identified Islandwide was up from 19 in 2013-14 and 16 in 2012-13.
Hempstead, Sachem, Wyandanch and Copiague were among eight districts statewide facing significant stress, the most severe category. The comptroller’s office uses three designations: significant stress, moderate stress, and susceptible to fiscal stress.
Hempstead, where the state reported a $15.1-million general-fund operating deficit last year, was the most stressed school system in the state, according to the agency’s statistical yardstick.
The “Fiscal Stress Monitoring System” uses several indicators to measure financial stress in districts: low fund balance, operating deficits, low liquidity and short-term debt. Financial information is taken from state forms, called ST-3s, that are filed by all districts at the end of each fiscal year.
DiNapoli, who formerly served as a school board trustee and state assemblyman in Nassau County, noted during a phone interview Thursday that the region as a whole has experienced broader economic trends that have affected schools, including a tightening of property values and tax revenue.
“Long Island is an area that has always had cost issues,” DiNapoli said, referring to the region’s cost-of-living and parents’ expectations for expansive school services. “Now housing values are down from where they were before, although they’re starting to go up again, and that has had an effect on assessed valuation.”
The report of widespread and growing fiscal woes facing many area schools is likely to spur demands for more state financial aid here.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, in his annual budget message earlier this month, proposed an Islandwide increase of $105.7 million, or 4.7 percent, in operating aid. Many school leaders said the region will need more than twice that amount just to maintain existing educational programs and to pay rising salaries and other costs.
For the Hempstead district, increased focus on its troubles is likely to redouble calls for reforms there. The state recently designated Hempstead High School as “persistently struggling,” meaning it could be placed under control of semi-independent managers known as receivers if it doesn’t improve academically in one year.
District spokesman Mike Fricchione, in a statement, referred to the influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America into the district as having a large impact. Because of that, he said, the system had to use reserve funds in 2014-15 and “is currently waiting to be reimbursed by the state for these costs.”
Dorothy Goosby, a Hempstead Town councilwoman and former school board trustee in the district, made note of the recent wave of enrollments. Goosby said she visited the middle school last year and found a substantial number of students were without desks or adequate books.
“A lot of that has to do with mismanagement,” the councilwoman said.
At least a half-dozen other districts identified by the comptroller’s office, including Copiague and Wyandanch, issued responses Thursday.
Most said their fiscal ratings had been affected negatively by decisions to draw down reserve funds in order to avoid big increases in property taxes. Copiague and Wyandanch both said they had been hit with enrollment growth.
“Our budgets are being stretched to their maximum capacity,” Copiague Superintendent Kathleen Bannon said. “Please be assured that the district is doing everything in its power to continue providing Copiague students with opportunities for success, while remaining fiscally responsible.”
Other school leaders called for changing or even eliminating the state’s tax cap, which holds annual hikes in property taxes to a baseline 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is less. The cap for the 2016-17 school year is near zero.
“It’s killing districts,” said Betsy Leibu, president of Hempstead’s 450-member teacher union.
Fred Gorman of Nesconset, a leading regional taxpayer advocate, took a different view. Gorman, who lives in the Sachem school district, is a founder of lischooltax.com, a watchdog group, and believes the tax-cap law, which expires in 2020, should be made permanent.
“Personally, I’m more concerned with the stress of homeowners than the stress of school employees,” Gorman said.
The comptroller’s office stepped up its monitoring of schools’ fiscal health in 2012, the first time cap limits were imposed on districts.
Statewide, the monitoring system showed generally stable conditions in 2014-15, according to the report released Thursday. A total of 82 districts were found to be facing some degree of fiscal stress, compared with 90 districts in 2013-14 and 87 in 2012-13.
Of a total 672 districts statewide, more than 77 percent faced no worrisome fiscal stress in any of the three years covered, the comptroller’s report showed.
Ten districts on Long Island were among 32 statewide designated as having greater-than-average problems for three years in a row under the monitoring system.
Lawrence was among six districts statewide that previously were categorized as troubled, but showed marked improvement last year.