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Eastport-South Manor school board calls for June 18 revote; disputes state finding

Joe Steimel, Eastport-South Manor's acting superintendent, and Nicholas

Joe Steimel, Eastport-South Manor's acting superintendent, and Nicholas Vero, school board president, at a board meeting Wednesday at Eastport High School. Credit: Andrew Theodorakis

Eastport-South Manor’s school board, in a startling reversal Wednesday night, called for a June 18 budget revote on grounds that the state had rejected its claim that the spending plan legally passed in the first round of voting.

The board’s president, Nicholas Vero, said the district was informed just before 6 p.m. of the unfavorable ruling by the state Education Department. The agency had posted notice six days earlier that Eastport-South Manor’s budget vote was “under review.”

“We strongly disagree with the state, and our attorneys will be in touch with the state to explain our position,” Vero said.

The board accepted the revote proposal unanimously.

Joe Steimel, the district’s acting superintendent, said the revote would be on the same budget put up before — a $96.5 million spending plan carrying a 2.75 percent tax increase. The plan is within the district’s state-imposed cap limit and will require a simple majority to pass.

Eastport-South Manor plans to hold a formal budget hearing June 11 in advance of the revote.

Vero later told a Newsday reporter that the board planned no legal action against the state in an effort to prove the legitimacy of its original vote, even though at least one other board member recently appeared to raise that possibility in a Facebook message.

“It’s going to a revote because we have no choice,” Vero said.

Word of the state’s inquiry spread across the sprawling district on Monday and Tuesday after Newsday reported that the state Education Department had posted a public-review notice on its website. Eastport-South Manor enrolls about 3,200 students in communities straddling the border between Brookhaven and Southampton towns.

State officials flagged Eastport-South Manor’s election results by highlighting them in red on a spreadsheet that listed vote outcomes in 675 districts statewide, including 124 on Long Island. The posting first appeared late last week.

Only a dozen districts statewide were marked in red — 11 of them because their budgets failed to pass, and Eastport-South Manor because the status of its vote is under state scrutiny.

The Wyandanch district was the only system on the Island to report that its budget was rejected, and it has scheduled a June 18 revote on a leaner spending plan.

Eastport-South Manor officials announced on the night of the vote that the $96.5 million budget passed and maintained that position until Wednesday night’s abrupt reversal. The budget received 1,211 “yes” votes to 1,002 “no” votes, the district reported.

A notation in the state’s posted election results showed that Eastport-South Manor’s budget required a 60 percent majority to pass, and that the actual approval was a majority of 54.7 percent.

The issue regarding requirement of a 60 percent supermajority stems from a separate proposition on the ballot, asking voters whether to spend $512,411 to hire six armed security guards. That proposition — the cost of which pushed the district over its tax-cap limit — was soundly defeated, with 545 “yes” votes to 1,673 “no” votes.

The situation has community residents on edge and local online networks buzzing.

“I have questions like every other resident,” said Peter McGuire of Manorville, a certified public accountant and father of two students, in a phone interview Tuesday. “I was really shocked that this article came out and that the state flagged the budget. It was very disconcerting.”

Eastport-South Manor’s budget proposal stirred controversy from the moment it was drafted by local officials in April because of its complex construction.

The budget itself stayed within the district’s state-imposed tax-cap limit of 2.75 percent. Hiring of the security guards, however, would have pushed the combined spending plan over the cap.

State law requires that at least 60 percent of those voting approve a cap-busting budget, rather than the usual simple majority needed for a spending plan that stays within the cap.

Eastport-South Manor’s ballot included a detailed statement that if the budget passed by 60 percent, the security proposition also could be approved by 60 percent. The ballot went on to say that the budget alone could be adopted by a simple majority.

Supporters of the security proposition, including McGuire, said after the vote that they had never intended to bust the cap.

Eastport-South Manor’s situation has attracted attention from school leaders across the region, in part because it could have set a precedent had the state Education Department decided differently.

In past years, three other districts on the Island dealt with similar circumstances — but on the assumption that their budgets could not pass unless they received 60-percent supermajorities. Those cases all dealt with separate propositions for expanded student busing, and in each case, approval of the proposition would push the district‘s budget over its cap.

State regulations make it clear that, in such cases, 60 percent supermajorities are required to pass both the budget and the proposition.

Some regional leaders believe the tax-cap law needs clarification.

“It‘s a close call, and the sooner this can proceed, the quicker the district will be able to move forward,“ said Lorraine Deller, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association.

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