Editorial: School budget surplus can damage trust
Spending appropriately is an essential part of keeping the public's trust for any governmental organization. Judged by that standard, the Central Islip school board has failed its residents over the past five years.
The board committed a double whammy of sins -- it underestimated revenue, and it overestimated how much it would spend. That resulted in combined surpluses of $25 million. Usually, a surplus is good news, except that Central Islip exceeded the legal limit on school district surpluses over the past three years. Worse, it increased its tax levy by $6.6 million, or 9 percent, during that time. In other words, it asked taxpayers for more money while it was not spending surplus funds it could have used to keep taxes down. That's never a good practice, but it's especially bad during difficult economic times. Central Islip even laid off teachers, increased class sizes and, for three years, switched from full-day kindergarten to half-day.
The finding last week by the state comptroller's office is distressingly familiar. Since July, Thomas DiNapoli's staff has found similar budgeting practices resulting in excessive surpluses in at least five other school districts -- Floral Park-Bellerose, Quogue, Mount Sinai, Mattituck-Cutchogue and Wainscott -- as well as the Middle Island Fire District. Having no clear plans to spend surpluses can lead to suspicion the money is being stashed for some other purpose.
Central Islip's explanation -- it was preparing to cover a potential liability involving building aid rescinded by the state Education Department -- was rejected for legal reasons by the comptroller and in any event would be required for only slightly more than half of the $25 million.
School districts complain they are criticized if their reserves are too low and if they are too high. But state law setting these limits is meant to protect taxpayers. Simply put: If a district socks away too much money, in one way or another it should give it back.