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School district overestimated budget needs by $36 million over 5 years

Lorna Lewis poses for a photograph while taking

Lorna Lewis poses for a photograph while taking part in the New York State " Learning Summit " in Albany, Thursday, May 7, 2015. Credit: Hans Pennink

The Plainview-Old Bethpage school district overestimated budget costs by nearly $36.5 million between 2009 and 2014, state auditors reported recently -- the 10th time a Long Island district has been flagged for budgeting excesses over the past 18 months.

Plainview-Old Bethpage consistently appropriated more money than it needed to cover expenses, by amounts ranging from $5.5 million to $8.9 million annually, according to the recent audit from state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli's office.

All this "misleads taxpayers," who couldn't know when voting on school budgets how much money actually was needed to run the district, auditors said. The audit team was headed by Ira McCracken, chief examiner for the comptroller's regional office in Hauppauge.

Local school officials contended the district operated transparently in presenting budget and financial information to the public. Lorna Lewis, the district superintendent, said in a phone interview Tuesday that Plainview-Old Bethpage watched expenses carefully and had earned a stellar AAA bond rating as a result.

Lewis also noted that her district this year raised its tax levy by 0.22 percent -- one of the lowest increases in the region. Plainview-Old Bethpage could have legally boosted taxes as much as 2.03 percent under the state's "cap" law, Lewis added.

"The bottom line is that we have sought to put forth a budget that protects the instructional program of the district in a tax-cap era," said the schools chief, who has headed the Plainview-Old Bethpage system since 2012 while also serving as a state-level adviser on academic issues.

School-budget surpluses totaling billions of dollars regionwide are a hot-button issue on the Island, where school taxes rank among the nation's highest.

Taxpayer advocates have contended that districts often intentionally "pad" their budgets, in part to cover salary increases. School administrators respond that they are forced to set aside substantial "rainy day" funds to guard against deep cuts in student services, especially during periods of economic turmoil and cuts in state aid to schools.

Since January 2014, the comptroller's office has issued reports detailing what it describes as excess budgeting in 10 districts across the region, ranged geographically from Mattituck-Cutchogue to Commack to Floral Park-Bellerose.

Steve Boder, a former sales manager for a footwear corporation, now retired and living in a condominium community in Plainview, has seen the issue from both sides. Boder served as a school-board trustee from 1983 to 1996 in the Middle Country district in central Brookhaven Town.

Boder, who has appeared at Plainview-Old Bethpage school-board meetings to criticize district budgeting practices, acknowledged that districts have to keep cash reserves as a hedge against fiscal crises.

"Yes, but there has to be a reasonable amount based on spending history," Boder said. "I think it's been overdone. People are leaving the Island because of the taxes. We could have a few years of zeros [tax increases]."

In another recent report, the comptroller's office said the Bethpage school district did not have proper written procedures for keeping track of accrued leave time due noninstructional employees. The district between July 2013 and November 2014 paid out $107,096 owed under contract to 19 such employees for accumulated leave not taken.

However, the audit found that, except for minor discrepancies, employees used leave time to which they were entitled. Terrence Clark, Bethpage's superintendent, said the district took "great comfort" that no major discrepancies were found in the state's "exhaustive two-month review."


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