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Long IslandEducation

Dismay, resolve in districts where budgets failed

Voters turned down Wyandanch Union Free School District's

Voters turned down Wyandanch Union Free School District's budget, Tuesday. (Dec. 7, 2009) Credit: Jori Klein

The morning after voters in a whopping 114 of 124 school districts on Long Island passed their budgets for 2010-2011, staff members and parents in districts where budgets failed fretted about how the defeat would affect students.

In the Wyandanch Union Free School District, it may mean slashing the kindergarten program from a full day to a half-day and cuts to sports, Advanced Placement courses and the junior ROTC program, district Superintendent Pless M. Dickerson said Wednesday.

The district had asked for a 3.4 percent budget increase, which would have meant a 13.94 percent tax increase.

Dickerson said he was not surprised by the result but had "hoped the community would say, 'OK, let's try to bite the bullet on this and send it through for the sake of the children . . .' But we're totally aware of the economics. We all live on Long Island.

"It's just frustrating to know that we still have to come up with a mechanism to make this work, that we still have to go deeper when we have already cut to the bone."

Wyandanch relies on the state for 62 percent of its budget - and the fact that the state budget has not yet passed means the district can't be sure it will receive even the minimum funding required to meet its contingency budget, Dickerson said. It faces laying off 25 staff members out of a staff of about 200, Dickerson said.

Wyandanch was one of just 10 budgets that failed Tuesday. The others are: East Rockaway, Garden City, Herricks, Levittown, West Hempstead and Westbury in Nassau County; and Elwood, Port Jefferson and West Babylon in Suffolk.

In Port Jefferson, where the school budget failed 584 to 1,052, several residents said Wednesday the district's spending needs to be under better control.

"I believe it was sending a huge message to the superintendent . . . the spending has to stop," said Dennis Mannarino, 49, a member of Parents United for Responsible Education, a group of residents who called for the defeat of the budget, angry at what they see as overspending.

"I voted no," said Jimmy Eagan, 49, a lifelong resident. "I think there's an imbalance," he said. "Our budgets need to be restructured."

But Jeff Potter, 36, a father of three small children, one in the district, with a wife who teaches in another district, said the anger is misplaced. "They thought by voting the budget down, they are getting back at some of the administration, but the thing is, the administrators get to keep their jobs and their salaries, too. That doesn't change, but sadly, programs get cut."

In West Hempstead, where the proposed budget increase was 3.69 percent and the tax increase 9.4 percent, Superintendent John Hogan said he also wasn't surprised by the vote - though he knows it likely means "significant cuts" to programs and personnel.

"We knew this was a difficult budget year," he said.

West Hempstead parent Tom Sargent, 51, said he voted for the budget, but the no vote showed how strapped voters are.

"In times like this, people here are being asked in their lives to make cuts," he said, adding he's put off his own retirement. "I think people are looking for there to be more equality."

Hogan said the school board will likely meet within the week to decide whether to put the budget up for a revote in June - and, if so, in what form.

Mike Nagin, 59, said he did not vote Tuesday, but would vote down the next budget. "It's not because we don't want to see a good education, but the taxes have been crippling," Nagin said, adding his property taxes are more than $10,000 a year.

No defeat was closer than in Herricks, where the vote was 1,729-1,728. The budget had called for a 3.8 percent budget increase and a tax increase of 4.83 percent. "When you lose, you still have the same decision, whether it's one or 5,000," Herricks Superintendent John Bierwirth said.

He said the board would now consider what cuts were needed for a potential revamped budget, adding "everything would have to be on the table."

Catharine Vetrano, 54, a health benefits administrator for the district, said she was upset the budget failed and hopes voters will pass it in the future. "It's a shame because the staff worked very hard to get it passed," she said. "Our main goal is to have everything for the students of the district."

In Westbury, where a proposed 2.5 percent budget increase was voted down, a teacher said she fears there will be layoffs and student program cuts.

Drexel Avenue School teacher Carol Gardiner said she thinks the budget was voted down because of the 6.88 percent tax hike. She said she hopes school board officials will come up with a new, passable budget.

"I hope they will put it up again in June . . . with some cuts," said Gardiner, who has taught in the district for 37 years.

Herman Sirois, superintendent of Levittown School District, said his district's budget failed because media portrayals focused too heavily on this year's tax increase rather than explaining that the last six budgets passed by the district included nominal tax increases and several cuts. "This is not a one year phenomenon," he said. "This is a multiyear process."

"We can't make the cuts that some other districts are doing" because Levittown has already made the cuts it can, Sirois said. "Our schools are top-notch and our budget is sound." He said he is going to recommend the school board put the budget, unchanged, up for a second vote. The school board makes the final decision.

Sirois said the losing vote margin of 3,250-3,227 shows that there is potential for the budget to pass.

Suzanne Wilson, 42, a Levittown preschool teacher, has three children who attend school in the district. She voted for the budget and said her children have received good academic support and enjoyed extracurricular activities. "This school district has allowed children to be successful and done right by the children," she said. "I hope they continue."

The budget was passed in Huntington, with resident Bill Martin among those who OKd the 3.6 percent budget increase and 3.54 percent tax levy increase.

Martin, whose granddaughter attends Jack Abrams Intermediate School in Huntington Station, added that voting down the budget would be an "interruption" and "not nice for the kids."

Jose Ulloa, whose daughter attends Abrams, said he was glad the budget passed, but the neighborhood around the school worries him.

"The school is good. It's just the neighborhood is not good," he said.

Huntington district parent Jillian DiGioia called the budget's passage "wonderful news."

She added: "I just don't want to have the school cuts, to lose the extracurriculars."

With Yamiche Alcindor, Stacey Altherr, Nomaan Merchant and Patrick Whittle

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