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Long IslandEducation

Hempstead school board approves proposed $189.2M budget

The Hempstead school board has voted unanimously to adopt a proposed $189.2 million budget for the 2016-17 school year that the panel’s president said is a first for the district — a spending plan that asks voters to authorize less money than in the current year.

The proposed budget for the district, which the state comptroller’s office in January designated as the most fiscally stressed in the state, shows a 0.4 percent decrease, a reduction of $766,268.

Board president LaMont Johnson said details on which items would be increased or decreased will come later in a final presentation to district residents, before voters statewide go to the polls May 17 to decide on their systems’ budgets and board candidates.

Thursday morning, at a separate meeting, trustees convened on short notice to consider a challenge to the nominating petition of Melissa Figueroa as a board candidate. They dismissed that challenge.

On the budget, district officials said they favor austerity. Hempstead overspent its budget last year and remains on the same track this year, though the district says it is seeking grants to cover its deficit.

“I don’t feel comfortable with increases in the budget,” said Johnson, speaking after a vote that took place early Wednesday, just after midnight. “People are already paying high taxes for low academic achievement. We want to raise that academic achievement.”

He predicted voters would be pleased to back a spending plan that drops from $189,934,158 to $189,167,890.

The proposed budget calls for a tax levy of $75,684,370, a 0.1% increase from the current $75,609,069.

Calvin Wilson, the district’s interim business manager, explained Thursday that the rise in the levy matches the district’s tax-cap limit. He said the increase will create a small cushion to bolster a projected fund balance of $1.2 million by the end of the 2016-17 school year. Under the proposed budget, the cost to a taxpayer whose property remains at the same assessed value is estimated at 1/10th of 1 cent, he said.

Board members voted for the proposal early Wednesday after the board closed its public session one hour into the meeting, which began at 7 p.m. Tuesday, and remained in executive session until shortly after midnight.

Superintendent Susan Johnson, who is not related to the board president, told those in attendance that the district has scheduled a May 10 budget hearing where voters may ask budget-related questions. She said documents pertaining to the budget will be made available a week before the hearing.

The district overspent its budget by $8.6 million in the 2014-15 school year and started the current school year with a $2 million budget gap, according to a review by an external auditor. The January report from state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said the district was saddled with a $15.1 million operating deficit in its general fund last year.

LaMont Johnson said the superintendent has been adept at securing grants that should help offset deficits as the district works aggressively to pare spending.

“Over a three-year period, we’ll even out and be where we need to be,” he said. “We’re going to correct our problems.”

Thursday’s hearing to challenge a candidacy was called after a complaint by the Rev. William A. Watson Jr., 69, who ran unsuccessfully for the board in 2009. He alleged that Figueroa does not live in the district because he found on the Internet that the property provided as her home address was listed for rent as “an investment property.”

When questioned by attorney Christopher F. Mestecky, who was acting on behalf of the the school board, Watson said he had no knowledge or evidence that Figueroa lives anywhere else.

Figueroa and her lawyer, Frederick K. Brewington, denied the allegations and submitted documents — including sworn affidavits from neighbors and friends, utility bills and voter registration information — to show she has owned the property and lived there for about six years. She rents part of her house, they said.

The board agreed unanimously that Watson did not present sufficient evidence and dismissed the complaint in a 5-0 vote.

“I’m just glad now that this is over,” said Figueroa, 35. “Now we can get to the real issues, which is the education of the children in this district.”

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