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Sachem school board votes cuts to custodial staff, athletics and clubs

Concerned audience members listen as possible school cuts

Concerned audience members listen as possible school cuts are discussed during a public meeting of the Sachem School Board in the auditorium of Samoset Middle School in Ronkonkoma on Sept. 16, 2015. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Sachem's school board voted Wednesday night to make cuts to custodial staff, clubs and athletics, trimming enough money to reallocate $2.5 million for special education services and workers' compensation costs.

The board declined to cut $345,000 in kindergarten aides, garnering applause from a crowd of more than 700 people, many of them teachers. Board member Laura Slattery asked the audience for patience as trustees grappled with these tough decisions.

"None of us want to be in this situation now," she said as audience members shouted down school administrators.

Twelve custodial positions and one maintenance worker will be eliminated at a savings of $833,000.

The board voted to cut clubs by 50 percent -- saving $318,000 -- but said they would consider bringing back at least some of the funding by searching for cuts at the administrative level.

The consolidation of some sports programs will save the district $250,000.

Throughout the meeting, parents chided the school board for failing to anticipate some of the costs and for not acting quickly on the sale of two district properties.

Sachem Assistant Superintendent Bruce Singer warned before the board voted that it had to make cuts either this week or next and that the longer they wait, the more painful the cuts would be.

"We are on a shoestring," Singer said, adding that he would continue to recommend cuts until the district's budgetary needs are met.

"We now know the lessons of not having a sufficient fund balance," he said.

"Give us a week, please," a parent said, asking for time for parents to raise the money themselves using social media.

Sachem, which serves 13,800 students in Suffolk County, has drained its savings through the years and had less than $17,000 in unreserved, unassigned funds in June. The district, which has a $296 million budget, has for years kept costs low.

In addition to increases in special education and workers' compensation, the district also is bracing for potential overruns related to leave replacements, which fluctuate wildly from year to year.

In 2013-2014, that cost ran $1.6 million under budget, while during the past school year, leave replacement costs exceeded expectations by $400,000.

Sachem administrators have said their fiscal troubles began in the 2009-2010 school year, when state aid dropped to $104 million from $119 million the year before.

State funds held steady in 2010-2011 before dipping again to $101.7 million the following school year.

The monies jumped to $107 million between 2012 and 2014 and shot up to $112 million in the past school year. While the partial restoration was appreciated by the district, it hasn't kept pace with other rising costs.

As for the district's unreserved, unassigned funds, they dropped from a high of $11.2 million in 2009-2010 to just $16,577 this summer.

The first year of the state-imposed tax cap, Sachem's proposed 2012-13 budget pierced the limit and got the required 60 percent approval from voters.

But in 2013, when the school system asked voters for a 7.49 percent hike -- well above the 3.14 cap -- they balked. A revised spending plan, which came in exactly at the cap, was passed.

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