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District on state fiscal-stress list eyes staff, program cuts for 2018-19

Eastport-South Manor is classified as having “moderate” financial strain; North Bellmore, Long Beach and Wyandanch are in “susceptible” category.

Eastport-South Manor Superintendent Patrick Brimstein, right, and assistant

Eastport-South Manor Superintendent Patrick Brimstein, right, and assistant superintendent Tim Laube in the district's Manorville administration building on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. Photo Credit: James Carbone

Eastport-South Manor school officials, whose district is among four on Long Island identified by the state comptroller Thursday as fiscally stressed, have begun notifying residents that belt-tightening measures — including staff and program cuts — may lie ahead.

The 3,300-student district has drawn down its cash reserves at an unsustainable rate in recent years and now must look at possible layoffs and other economies to balance its budget for the 2018-19 school year, Superintendent Patrick Brimstein said in an interview. The current budget is $92.9 million.

District officials have said they want to keep within the state’s 2 percent baseline cap on property tax increases and should reach a final decision on that issue by Feb. 14. Public forums to discuss budgeting alternatives have been scheduled for Feb. 7 and March 14.

“We intend to live within our means,” said Tim Laube, who is Eastport-South Manor’s assistant superintendent for business and — like Brimstein, who started as schools chief in May — is new to the district.

Three other districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties — North Bellmore, Long Beach and Wyandanch — are among 26 systems statewide facing varying degrees of financial stress, state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli announced.

Eastport-South Manor was reported as having “moderate” stress — the second-most serious category of financial pressure used in the comptroller’s annual rating system. The other three districts are classified in the less acute category of “susceptible to fiscal stress.”

The statewide number of districts designated as financially strained is down substantially, from 59 listed last year — “welcome news,” the comptroller said. The number in Nassau and Suffolk counties is down from last year’s 18 districts.

The monitoring system uses six financial indicators, including levels of cash reserves known as fund balances, operating deficits, cash on hand and reliance on short-term borrowing. Data are drawn from year-end financial reports provided by individual districts using standard state forms.

No districts on the Island are listed this year as being in “significant” stress, the most serious category under the rating system.

Thursday’s announcement provided a ray of good news for the Hempstead school district, which was categorized last year as facing “significant” strain, but is not on this year’s list. Officials there confirmed Thursday that the district’s cash reserves are in far better shape than they were at this time last year.

Hempstead still faces a state order to submit a districtwide plan by Feb. 2 to improve its leadership, student performance, school security and other areas of weakness.

Regina Armstrong, its acting superintendent, credited past administrators for the financial improvements. She added that the emphasis in coming months will be on repairing aging school buildings and upgrading student programs, both remedial and enriched.

Armstrong took over earlier this month from Superintendent Shimon Waronker, whom the school board placed on administrative leave with pay. Waronker has sued the district in federal court for the right to return to his post.

North Bellmore’s superintendent, Marie Testa, said her district’s financial rating reflects its decision “purposely and appropriately” to draw down reserve funds in order to keep taxes within the state’s cap.

In Long Beach, the chief operating officer, Michael DeVito, said his district’s financial ratings have been adversely affected by the need to do short-term borrowing to repair damage from superstorm Sandy, and that such borrowing has now ended.

The Wyandanch district did not respond to Newsday’s request for comment.

This is the fifth year that DiNapoli has released the annual list. According to the comptroller’s office, the system used to measure fiscal stress recently was revised to include “direct input” from local school officials.

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