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State comptroller: Eight Long Island school districts under fiscal stress

The Wyandanch Union Free School District is among

The Wyandanch Union Free School District is among four districts statewide in the "significant" fiscal stress designation, a score it's had the last two school years. Credit: Newsday / William Perlman

Eight Long Island school districts, including Hempstead, Wyandanch and Wantagh, face varying levels of fiscal stress, according to a report released Thursday by the state's fiscal watchdog agency.

The report from State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli's office comes on the heels of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signing bills to appoint state monitors to oversee the Hempstead and Wyandanch districts and give authority to the state commissioner of education to approve their academic and financial plans. Amendments to the bills had Senate approval and were awaiting action from the Assembly on Thursday.

The report, using 2018-19 financial data, found 33 districts in the state facing fiscal stress, an increase from 26. The number of districts on Long Island facing fiscal stress stayed at eight, the same number as in 2017-18.

The Wyandanch Union Free district in Suffolk County is among four statewide in the “significant” fiscal stress designation, a mark it has had the past two school years, according to the report. Before that, Wyandanch was in “susceptible” fiscal stress in 2016-17. The district superintendent could not be reached for comment Thursday.

A district can fall under “susceptible,” “moderate,” or “significant” stress classifications based on financial reports they provided. They get labeled “no designation” if their score results fall below the established stress levels. 

The Wantagh Union Free and Hempstead Union Free districts in Nassau County went from having no sign of fiscal stress in 2017-18 to showing “moderate” signs of fiscal stress in 2018-19. The New Suffolk Common School District also has a "moderate" level of fiscal stress.

Island districts with "susceptible" fiscal stress, the least severe category, are Suffolk's Copiague, Deer Park and Fishers Island, and Nassau's Roosevelt.   

The comptroller’s office uses a “fiscal stress monitoring system” to measure how financially stressed a district is by looking at its fund balance levels, operating deficits, cash-on-hand and reliance on short-term borrowing. The study also considers “environmental” factors that are out of the district’s control, such as poverty rates and taxable property wealth.

Hempstead, considered Nassau's poorest district in terms of taxable wealth, repeatedly has said one of its issues is the district does not get enough financial aid from the state.

“When you add in unfunded mandates passed on from [the state] to our taxpayers, such as charter school expenses and now the salary for a ‘monitor’ over the district, it becomes clear that our local elected officials … need to put their money where their mouth is and come through for our students and community,” Hempstead spokeswoman Nicole Epstein said. “Enough is enough.”

John McNamara, superintendent of Wantagh Union Free district, said in a statement that the district has been following the comptroller's recommendations.

"The district put into place a targeted financial plan, which over time continues to significantly reduce the appropriated fund balance and thus a temporary change in financial standing according to the fiscal stress metrics," the statement read. "The district was well aware of the probable shift that would occur as we worked to tighten the budget, and we remain fiscally strong throughout this process."

James Cummings, superintendent of Deer Park, said his district is on the "cusp" of the "susceptible" list.

"The district is positioned on the cusp of this designation by the State Comptroller’s office due to a slight change in ratio for one of the measured categories," Cummings said in a statement. "The minimal adjustment has been identified, and the district will continue to strengthen its fiscal position in this and all areas."

This marked the seventh year the Comptroller’s Office released its annual “fiscal stress in school districts” report, which obtains financial data from districts that choose to self-report.

Four districts did not provide a financial report, including Long Island’s Wainscott Common, out of 674 districts across 57 counties. The New York City school district is excluded from this study due to its “unique financial structure,” the report states.

“Not filing financial information reduces transparency at the very least and may even jeopardize state aid to the districts,” the report stated.

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