Connetquot and Sayville have joined an expanding list of Long Island school districts rapped by state auditors for inflating their budgets, either by running up multimillion-dollar surpluses or not keeping a careful eye on expenses.
Connetquot overestimated total expenses by $33.5 million over three years, from 2011-12 to 2013-14, the state comptroller's office reported Monday. Overages ranged from $9.3 million a year to $13.5 million, on budgets between $165.3 million and $176.6 million.
Sayville overestimated total budget costs by $30.9 million over five years, from 2009-10 to 2013-14, the auditors found. Overestimates ranged from $3.8 million to $7.4 million annually, on budgets totaling between $79.3 million and $92.3 million.
Both audits also zeroed in on specific expenses. For example, the Sayville district spent $199 each for staffers' cellphones that could have been purchased for $95 each, the audit report said. The district shelled out $2,200 in fees because it did not activate phones within the 60 days allowed by the seller, it said.
Local officials in both districts defended their budget policies, saying they had maintained strong academic and extracurricular services for students in an era of tax caps and economic uncertainty.
"We have beautiful and stellar buildings, we have programs for students that have been cut in other places," said Lynda Adams, the Connetquot superintendent. "There's a lot of unpredictability that you can't nail down when you prepare a budget."
John Belmonte, assistant superintendent for business in Sayville, said the district had budgeted "very prudently," adding that he was "truly saddened by the approach taken by the comptroller's office."
Regarding the cellphone purchases, Belmonte said he recently applied to the seller for rebates.
Over the past 18 months, Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli's office has spotlighted a dozen districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties for overestimating expenses and padding budgets in apparent efforts to build up cash reserves. The Connetquot and Sayville reports are the latest in the series.
The auditors' language was harsh at points. The report on Sayville referenced the district's "consistently inflated budgets." The Connetquot report noted that an audit in 2008 found cost overestimates, adding that "this practice has continued."
DiNapoli and his staff consistently have held that such budgeting practices mislead taxpayers, because they cannot tell when voting on school budgets how much money is actually needed to run districts.
Both Connetquot and Sayville issued vigorous written defenses.
Connetquot said that five of its union contracts had expired in 2012 or 2013, and had not been settled until 2015. That made it difficult to accurately estimate cost increases from one year to the next, because payment of newly negotiated raises and benefits became retroactive, the district said.
Sayville called the state's conclusions "inaccurate" and "misleading."
The steady drumbeat from the comptroller's office also has struck a nerve with state-level school organizations.
Michael Borges, executive director of the New York State Association of School Business Officials, recently contended in a letter to Newsday that articles on state audits had not told the whole story about financial pressures the districts face.
"Audits of school districts suffer from the 'Goldilocks syndrome,' " Borges wrote. "Schools around the state are chastised for either not having enough in reserve or for having too much. The right amount in reserves depends on the district and its unique circumstances, and ultimately, that's the responsibility of school boards to determine, not someone in Albany."