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Commack school trustee James Tampellini says he may resign over budgeting disagreements

Trustee James Tampellini speaks during a Commack School

Trustee James Tampellini speaks during a Commack School District Informal Budget Meeting at Commack High School on Wednesday, April 1, 2015. Credit: Daniel Goodrich

Commack Board of Education trustee James Tampellini said he may resign before his term is over, giving up his role as outspoken critic of the district's budgeting practices.

"If I'm wasting my time and not accomplishing anything . . . I'll step down," said Tampellini, a lawyer with Katten Muchin Rosenman in Manhattan. "My goal is to make a substantive change." He was elected in 2013 to a term ending in June 2016.

Tampellini accused trustees of deceiving the public on the budget. He objects to Commack setting aside funds to hold down the tax levy for the next year coupled with what he said is a tendency to overbudget and underspend, often by millions.

"When you have several years where you're off by over $6 million or more, you have to re-evaluate your budget and say we came in too high," he said.

The state comptroller's office is now auditing Commack for the first time since 2010, when the agency made no mention of those budget practices.

Commack is a high-performing district with a growing selection of AP classes and enrichment programs, and a high scholarship rate. About 90 percent of high school students go to college within a year of graduating.

Despite that success, some residents remain unhappy with the district's spending, and Tampellini is their voice.

"His capacity to just expose the truth is refreshing," resident Maureen Veprek said. "Mr. Tampellini offers hope."

Tampellini says he represents the embattled taxpayer, but opponents say he does not understand school finance.

"The man is divisive . . . he misinterprets what's going on," former trustee Peter Wunsch said.

In 2014, the board had an $8.3 million fund to hold down taxes the following year. Commack officials say it is a responsible way to limit future tax hikes. But Tampellini said unspent money is "perpetually rolled over." He says Commack is sidestepping a 4 percent state limit on "rainy day" reserves, which the comptroller has observed in some districts.

"Appropriating fund balance and using it is acceptable," comptroller spokesman Brian Butry said. "Continually appropriating fund balance year after year, but not actually using it . . . We would not view that as being transparent."

Tampellini also wants Commack to use actual expenditures as a starting point for new budgets, but Laura Newman, the district's assistant superintendent for business, said it builds them from zero and then tries to find savings.

"We do all we can to not spend all the money," she said.

Last year, 72 percent of voters approved a $179.7 million budget. The district has never pierced a tax cap and once used a levy increase lower than they approved. District officials say they are proud of that record.

"There has been discussion of the board's failure to do its fiduciary duty, and I don't take that lightly," board president Deborah Guber said in an interview.

Tampellini said he will wait until the comptroller's audit is released this summer before deciding whether to leave.

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