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Hempstead school official pledges budget will be balanced

The new interim business superintendent for the fiscally distressed Hempstead schools told residents he will fashion “a balanced budget . . . that puts the district on a positive fiscal path,” without a tax increase or a spending increase.

Calvin Wilson, a business manager whose WIMAC company was retained last month to take the reins of the district’s finances, told those attending public hearings Tuesday and Thursday that the district will come out of deficit spending and have a “positive fund balance” in the proposed 2016-17 budget, slated to be released next month.

Some residents peppered Wilson with questions and one complained about few specifics being offered on the proposed spending plan.

Wilson said the district will get back into the black with “no tax increase, no spending increase,” sticking to a $189 million budget through “zero-based budgeting.”

All costs, including staffing for administration, teachers and teacher assistants, are being re-evaluated, he said.

“All this will be done with no increase in taxes, and spending less money than you approved for the board to spend,” Wilson told his listeners.

In the 2014-15 school year, Hempstead overspent its budget by $8.6 million, and it started the current school year with a $2 million budget gap, according to the district’s external auditor.

The budget approved by voters last May — $189,934,158 — reflected a 2.69 percent increase from the previous year, according to figures the system released at the time.

The district was deemed the most financially stressed in the state as it ran a $15.1 million operating deficit in its general fund last year, according to a January state comptroller’s report.

The district’s former assistant superintendent for business, Gerard Antoine, resigned “for personal reasons,” with his departure becoming effective on Jan. 18.

Residents at last week’s hearings expressed concerns about whether reading teachers, music programs and technology improvements would be funded under the proposed budget.

Wilson did not specify any number of layoffs, but signaled the need for fiscal restraint.

He said Hempstead could save in renegotiating with transportation providers and making better scheduling decisions. He said he also has studied enrollment trends and is making projections based on an expected enrollment increase of 170 to 200 children — a slight decline from the 236 new students who enrolled for the current school year.

School board President LaMont Johnson said he agrees with plans not to raise district spending.

“I don’t feel comfortable for the taxes being raised unless our scores are raised, so I think people should get the bang for the buck,” Johnson said, referring to students’ test scores, which are among the lowest on Long Island.

Melissa Figueroa, a resident who has announced her intention to run for the school board in the May 17 election, criticized the district for not providing any handouts with specific budget projections.

“The public should be able to have access to a clearly articulated plan” before the board considers a spending amount at Tuesday’s board meeting, Figueroa said. “The community deserves to have tangible information that we can refer to, because what else are we here for?”

Patricia McNeill, a 32-year resident, came away with a more positive take. She agrees the district needs to rethink spending.

“When I was a PTA president I told the state, ‘Don’t give us any more money. Money is not our issue. It’s what we do with the money,’ ” McNeill said. “We have to learn to manage with what we have.”

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