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Hempstead school district releases proposed 2016-17 budget

Calvin Wilson, interim business manager for the Hempstead

Calvin Wilson, interim business manager for the Hempstead school district, presents the district's proposed budget on Tuesday, May 10, 2016. He says the plan will keep costs under control. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Hempstead school officials pitched their proposed 2016-17 budget Tuesday night as a path to “righting the ship” in a district that’s been in financial disarray and operating at a deficit for the past two school years.

The budget, which seeks to hold down spending and keep taxes in check, got its hearing before more than two dozen residents Tuesday night. The fiscal plan will be up for a vote on May 17, alongside eight candidates vying for three seats that could affect the school board’s balance of power.

The school board and administration “worked diligently,” said interim business manager Calvin Wilson, to craft a budget “that provides for quality educational opportunities for all district students” while cutting costs.

The proposed budget calls for $189.2 million in spending, a decrease of 0.4 percent, and a tax levy of $75.7 million, up 0.1 percent.

But the fiscal plan’s taxing level would match the state cap for the year by significantly lowering anticipated spending in capital projects, renegotiating transportation costs and cutting expenses elsewhere.

While the budget decreases spending in salaries for teachers and teaching assistants and funds for textbooks, it also pays for more resources for special education.

Those reductions were planned because the district expects its net enrollment growth to level off at fewer than 200 students. Enrollment had spiked to a net increase of 425 students in the 2014-15 school year and 205 students in 2015-16 as more immigrants moved to the area.

The budget would fund the purchase of new desks and chairs in grades one through three; restore media specialists at the elementary level and continue to pay for double the mandated instruction time in English and math for grades six through eight, Wilson said.

After the meeting, school board president LaMont Johnson said he supports restraints in spending because “it’s not fair to taxpayers” to increase spending without better academic results.

“We are on a great financial path” with this budget, Johnson said. “It’s not so much about the quantity” of funds spent “but about the quality” of instruction.

The overall spending decrease is an attempt to bring Hempstead out of its financial morass after the district overspent its 2014-15 budget and started the current school year with a negative balance sheet.

According to updated figures provided by the district, it will be on track to end the 2015-16 school year with another $3.8 million deficit that would ultimately put the district about $10.3 million in the red in its unreserved fund balance.

The current plan seeks to reverse that trend, as it projects a surplus of $3.2 million in the 2016-17 school year. Based on current projections, the district could emerge from negative territory with $3.8 million left in its unrestricted fund balance at the end of the 2017-18 school year.

Caprice Rines, a resident, complained about the costs the district absorbs in educating immigrant students.

“Here in Hempstead we have been dumped on far too long,” Rines said. “It’s not right. . . . The federal government and those who are not doing their fair share, I’m tired of it.”

Betsy Leibu, the teachers union representative, said teachers are seeing “high class sizes now” and cuts would exacerbate those, but Wilson said the district will accomplish more by having “tighter schedules” and “a better utilization of teachers.”

Wilson also told a teaching assistant, concerned about staff cuts, that changes are necessary, even if they would bring some pain.

“Let me be blunt, school districts are not employment agencies,” he said. “No one is entitled to be here. We earn our keep every day.”

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