Sachem officials: Outlook improving, slowly

Audience members listen to a presentation regarding possible Audience members listen to a presentation regarding possible school closings during a meeting of the Sachem school board at Samoset Middle School on Feb. 26, 2014. Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

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A $4.8 million boost in state aid could help the Sachem Central School District bring back a portion of the teachers and support staff it cut this current academic year during its worst-ever fiscal crisis, officials said.

The district, the second-largest in enrollment on Long Island and one of the largest suburban districts in the state, is proposing a $294 million budget for the 2014-15 school year, and with it, a 1.91 percent tax levy increase.

It is the first time the district's proposed budget has stayed within the state's tax-cap limit since that law took effect ahead of the 2012 budget vote.

For other local school districts with a comparable tax base and demographic -- if not Sachem's size -- the 14,200-student district has been a frightening example of life under the tax cap.

Ahead of this school year, about 250 teachers and staff were laid off, and it only kept the kindergarten program at full days because of a last-minute infusion of state money. The district already had drawn down its reserves to plug earlier budget gaps.

The Island's school officials say they don't know what to expect going forward. Though glad of increased state aid in this election year, the extra money from Albany is having a cushioning effect on districts' financial pictures.

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A year of uncertainty

"This is an unusual year," said Roberta Gerold, head of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, adding that it's "too early to tell" what the future will hold. Gerold is superintendent of the Middle Country district.

David S. Feller, head of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents and of the North Merrick school district, said while state-aid increases saved some jobs, "I wouldn't say we have turned a corner."

The first year of the state-imposed cap, Sachem's proposed 2012-13 budget pierced its tax-levy limit and got the required 60 percent approval of those voting. But last year, when the district asked voters for a 7.49 percent hike -- again busting the cap -- the budget was rejected. A revised spending plan, which came in exactly at the 3.14 percent cap, passed.

If Sachem's 2014-15 budget wins voter approval in Tuesday's statewide vote, it could start crawling back to normalcy.

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School officials said they plan to restore 10 secondary teachers, six elementary school librarians, six social workers, a speech teacher, one assistant principal at each of the two high schools, some 20 kindergarten aides and four IT workers, among others.

The district's clubs, cut in half this year, would be fully funded. "The good thing is that all the money we received in additional state aid, we were able to put back into people and programs," Sachem school board president Robert Scavo said.

The proposed spending plan includes a contractual teacher salary increase of 1.25 percent and a 2 percent step increase, the district said. The average resident would pay an added $106 in taxes, though a state rebate program meant to encourage schools and municipalities to rein in spending would refund the amount for those who qualify.

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Cuts were painful

The cuts that took effect this school year have been seen and felt across the district's 18 campuses. Class sizes swelled to 36 for some middle school students. Computer problems that once took hours to fix now linger for days because of staff cuts. Kindergarten teachers who formerly relied on aides to help get kids out the door now sacrifice precious instructional time on mundane but necessary tasks.

And with a $600,000 hit to the budget for supplies, photocopies and ink cartridges have been monitored all year long.

"This year, the one we are in, is where we took the major blow," said school board member Dorothy Roberts, who is running for re-election. "Honestly, it was like saying, 'Do you want to cut off your arm or do you want to cut off your leg?' "

The district is considering more cost-cutting measures. Its administrative building in Holbrook is for sale. While it has put off plans to close schools, that remains an option.

Roberts said the influx in aid will allow the district to stabilize, but Sachem isn't where it would like to be -- and it won't be for some time.

The 8,000 Dell desktop computers used by staff and students are at least 6 years old; most date back to 2004.

The district's 30 school buses -- it contracts out for another 170 -- are 15 years old. Ideally, those would be replaced after a decade.

And Sachem's fund balances still are woefully short. There is $1.5 million in one key account, its unreserved, unassigned fund. While that's up from about $500,000 last year at this time, it's well short of the $11 million it had in 2009-10.

But for the coming school year, Sachem is in the adding, not subtracting phase, officials note. "We are in a much better financial condition than we have been in the last few years," associate superintendent Bruce Singer said.

State Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) has worked closely with Sachem on its budget.While its financial situation has improved, "obviously no school district is out of the woods," he said, adding that all are continuing to look to cut costs. "I think the biggest problem is lack of predictability," he said, because school districts don't know what they're going to get in state aid each year until April."It's year to year, and it's a challenge when you are trying to make decisions that will have an impact on a district's financial stability two or five years down the road."

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