Officials in the Commack School District overestimated its expenditures for three years in a row, resulting in operating surpluses that could have held down the tax levy, according to an audit by the state comptroller's office.
From the 2011 through 2014 school years, the district cumulatively budgeted for $24.8 million more than it actually spent, according to the audit that was released Friday.
During that time, spending was overestimated by $6 million for the 2011 to 2012 school year; $9.9 million the next school year; and $8.9 million the year after, the audit found.
"Had district officials used more realistic budget estimates, they could have avoided the accumulation of excess fund balance and possibly reduced the real property tax levy," the report said. The majority of overestimated expenditures was for employee benefits and regular and special-education instruction.
District officials said they have worked diligently to find cost savings, and that they do return surpluses to taxpayers with lower tax levies. They cited the 2013-14 school year, when taxpayers approved a 2.91 percent tax levy, but district officials used surplus funds to hold the tax levy raise to a lower-than-expected 1.58 percent.
"There are philosophical differences regarding budgeting practices," the district said in a statement issued late Friday. "Through long-term planning and vision, the district has maintained fiscal and academic stability through difficult economic times."
The state requires that a school district's unrestricted fund balance -- extra money with no limits on how it can be spent -- cannot exceed 4 percent of the following year's actual spending. Any excess is supposed to be used to lower property taxes, or go toward other reserve funds, one-time expenditures or debt.
The audit found that district officials technically complied with the mandated fund balance limit each year. But it said they circumvented the requirement when they didn't use the surplus left over when they budgeted for more than they spent.
For example, the district reported a $6.7 million fund balance for 2013-14, which was 3.6 percent of the following year's budget and under the 4 percent limit on the fund. But according to the comptroller's office, that year the district's budgeting practices resulted in what amounted to a $14.6 million balance, or about double the 4 percent limit.
However, the district pointed to the $8.3 million it had appropriated from that year to hold down the tax levy in the following year.
The audit also said that after over-budgeting in a given year, the district did not adjust its budgets for the following year to reflect the lower-than-expected spending.
The criticisms in the audit echoed comments from Commack trustee James Tampellini, who has long railed against the district's practices.
"I think it vindicates everything I've been saying and it shows that the superintendent and the other board members have been misleading," Tampellini said Friday. "A school district is like a corporation and the taxpayers are the shareholders. If you're misleading the taxpayers then you're breaching your duty."