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Commack board OKs $185M school budget for 2015-2016

Trustee James Tampellini speaks during a Commack School

Trustee James Tampellini speaks during a Commack School District Informal Budget Meeting at Commack High School on Wednesday, April 1, 2015. Credit: Daniel Goodrich

The Commack Board of Education has adopted a $185 million 2015-16 budget with a 0.95 percent tax levy increase, coming in below the district's 1.28 percent cap.

It is a $1.9 million -- or 1.03 percent -- increase from the 2014-15 budget.

If voters approve the plan on May 19, the tax levy will raise $132 million for the district, accounting for 71 percent of the budget.

Commack's budget would add new English language learning staff, and new and enhanced college level courses and electives at the high school level, according to the district's budget presentation.

The district is receiving $38.5 million in state aid, $1.35 million more than in the 2014-15 school year.

The approval passed Thursday night in a 4-1 decision in which trustee James Tampellini was the voice of dissent. Tampellini recently said he is considering resigning early because he is concerned with the district's budgeting practices.

Specifically, he objects to Commack's tactic of setting aside funds to hold down the tax levy for the next budget year, coupled with a tendency to over-budget and underspend, often by millions of dollars.

For example, while the district budgeted $179.7 million for the 2013-2014 school year, it spent $171.1 million -- about $8.6 million less than planned. Tampellini characterizes this as a surplus. He wants the district to begin building each year's budget based on the actual spending of the current year.

"I voted no to the budget because, as in prior years, I do not believe the budget contains an accurate estimate of the district's expenses for next fiscal year," Tampellini said in an email Monday. "I believe the budget is padded with millions of dollars beyond the amount that the district knows it will actually need to fund its operations."

But school officials point out that revenue was actually lower than expected that year, coming in at $169 million, for a $2.1 million spending deficit.

School officials said they budget for every contingency and then look for savings after voters approve the budget.

"We're trying to anticipate everything," said Laura Newman, district assistant superintendent for business. "Once the taxpayers have approved that total . . . then we change gears. We do all we can to not spend all the money."

Newman said officials generally spend 95 percent of the budget every year, so any actual surplus, or the separate appropriated fund balance that remains, is a fraction of the total budget.

"The culture is if we need it, we have the funds available," Newman said.

The state comptroller's office is auditing the district, with a report due this summer.

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