TODAY'S PAPER
72° Good Afternoon
72° Good Afternoon
Long Island

2 LI school districts warn: Cuts could mean bankruptcy

Wyandanch Board of Education President Denise Baines speaks

Wyandanch Board of Education President Denise Baines speaks during a special personnel meeting, Monday. (Sept. 27, 2010) Credit: John Dunn

Roosevelt school leaders have joined their Wyandanch counterparts in warning that recent state-aid cuts could mean "devastating" losses of services to students - with some board trustees in both communities raising the specter of bankruptcy.

But late Tuesday, state education authorities declared that school boards are legally barred from declaring bankruptcy and board members attempting to do so could face removal.

Financial pressures are rapidly mounting in both districts, which rank among Long Island's poorest and most dependent on state aid. District officials have said declaring bankruptcy would, among other things, allow them to throw out union contracts and pay lower salaries.

In Roosevelt, schools Superintendent Robert-Wayne Harris has advised the state an expected $6-million loss in annual aid this year, on a budget of $84 million, would have "a devastating impact on the Roosevelt tax payers and students and set the district back years." Harris' statement Monday was released from the state comptroller's office.

Roosevelt's warning - which echoes alarms sounded last week in Wyandanch - follows a new comptroller's report on its finances. The report finds Roosevelt in good fiscal shape, with an estimated $6.4 million in unencumbered cash reserves at the close of the last school year. The report also notes, however, that the state, which faces a cash crunch, is cutting off a $6-million annual grant initiated nearly three years ago.

Roosevelt School Board trustees Tuesday endorsed Harris' warning, with one trustee, Robert Summerville, adding local taxpayers could face a rate hike of more than 30 percent if they tried to make up for the state aid loss on their own. Summerville added the district soon could face extra costs of building maintenance and air-conditioning, due to effects of a $245.5-million construction and renovation project encouraged by the state and now in its final stages.

"If that [grant] money is cut from the school budget, I think we need to find an attorney to take us into bankruptcy court," Summerville said.

In Wyandanch, too, some community leaders advocate bankruptcy as a possible answer to an expected $2.4-million shortfall in the district's state aid this year. The school board already rejected a proposed 9.8 percent tax hike to make up the shortfall in the district's $55-million budget, leaving only drastic cuts as an alternative.

Board president Denise Baines said she hoped to arrange a meeting this week between her panel and a lawyer to explore the bankruptcy option. "They [the state] have turned their backs on the district," she said.

Later in the day, however, the Island's representative to the Board of Regents, Roger Tilles, said state education staffers in Albany told him that Roosevelt's and Wyandanch's boards were legally prohibited from declaring bankruptcy. Any attempt to do so, Tilles added, could result in the state's replacing board trustees with others who would be required to balance district budgets - presumably, either through tax increases or service cuts."There wouldn't be any benefit to them economically, and they would lose local control," Tilles said.

Jay Worona, general counsel for the State School Boards Association, agreed, saying a quick legal review did not appear to indicate that local school systems outside large cities could take that step.

Advised by Newsday of the state's remarks, Baines and Summerville said they thought the legality of bankruptcy was still worth exploring with attorneys.

Latest Long Island News