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Two LI districts hold budget revotes Tuesday

A voter leaves the Wyandanch school district's Central

A voter leaves the Wyandanch school district's Central Administration Building on May 21, when the first round of balloting was held. Credit: James Carbone

Revotes on budgets for the 2019-20 school year are coming Tuesday in Eastport-South Manor and Wyandanch — districts where controversies in the first round of balloting attracted both regional and state attention.

Voting in Eastport-South Manor runs from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the district's junior-senior high school, 543 Moriches-Middle Island Rd. in Manorville. Wyandanch's vote is scheduled from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the district's Central Administration Building, 1445 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

Wyandanch's proposed $73.3 million budget, which is lower than the package rejected in the May 21 vote, would boost spending 2.8 percent and taxes 20 percent. The tax increase exceeds the district's state-imposed cap, so the spending plan requires a 60 percent voter supermajority to win adoption.

Eastport-South Manor's $96.5 million spending plan, which is the same as an earlier proposal that lost on a procedural issue, would raise expenditures 3.65 percent and taxes 2.75 percent. This falls within the district's tax cap and needs a simple majority to pass.

Under the tax-cap law, districts where budgets are rejected twice face tax freezes and must operate on contingency budgets with tight restrictions on spending.

Despite contrasts in their tax proposals, both Wyandanch and Eastport-South Manor have encountered public flaps in recent weeks. The districts, both in Suffolk County, are among a dozen systems statewide where revotes are scheduled Tuesday.

At a public hearing last week, Wyandanch officials announced they would cut at least 10 administrative, teaching and other staff jobs and slash $1 million from student bus transportation even if the revised budget passes. Reductions are required to balance the district's budget, local officials said, following two years of what the state has described as deficit spending.

Should the budget be defeated a second time, district officials warned that deeper cuts will be imposed on staff and in sports, prekindergarten and after-school programs. The choice of steeper taxes or slashes in student services has left many parents and school staffers distraught.

"Everyone's scared," Scott O'Brien Curcie, president of Wyandanch's 223-member teacher union, said late last week. "We have a lot of new teachers. They've been in touch with me all day. They're worried about their jobs."

Wyandanch is Suffolk's poorest district in terms of taxable wealth, and a series of state reports have criticized the district's leadership for flawed fiscal management. Tracey Edwards, Long Island regional director for the NAACP, said such problems also pose a civil rights concern, because 98 percent of the district's enrollment is either Latino or black.

Edwards, in a statement issued Thursday, recommended that after the revote is over, the district should establish an independent commission to review its budget management, strategic planning and fiscal responsibility.

"Appropriate action must be taken on behalf of Wyandanch's children and the taxpayers, so this does not continue to repeat," Edwards said, referring to the system's chronic financial troubles.

Eastport-South Manor officials on June 5 announced that they would put the budget to a revote — acknowledging then that the state Education Department had ruled results of the May 21 vote were insufficient. Until then, local authorities insisted their budget passed in the first round.

The ballot issue was complex. Eastport-South Manor's budget fit within the district's tax cap, but was accompanied by a special proposition to hire armed security guards. The cost of the additional proposition would have pushed the district over its cap limit.

On election day, the budget passed by a 54.7 percent majority, while the security guard proposition failed. Eastport-South Manor administrators immediately declared the budget approved.

Fifteen days later, the Education Department ruled that, no, the budget required a 60 percent supermajority to pass. The decision left many Eastport-South Manor residents frustrated and anxious.

"I really hope it passes," said Tara Mazovec of South Manor, a manager of technology literacy at Stony Brook University. "I have three kids in the district, and if it goes to contingency, then that would negatively impact my kids."

Mazovec added, in reference to the district's handling of the voting dispute, "I think they've handled it horribly."

District board members had noted earlier that they placed the security guard proposition on the ballot after receiving a petition signed by more than 600 residents.

Three other districts on the Island, which in recent years faced similar situations with additional ballot propositions that would push the local tax levy over the cap, acted on the assumption that their budgets required 60 percent supermajorities.

Representatives of state-level school organizations said the controversy illustrated the need for state authorities to clarify the rules on what happens when residents petition to raise spending beyond caps.

"Propositions that are initiated by citizens should be treated differently, and not held against the district's tax cap," said Michael Borges, executive director of the Association of School Business Officials of New York.

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