Robert Bryant in a 2019 photo.

Robert Bryant in a 2019 photo. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The Wyandanch and Brentwood school districts are among 29 underfunded systems across the state that will face a struggle next fall in providing a "sound, basic education" required by the state constitution, a nonpartisan research group has concluded.

The report, from the Manhattan-based Citizens Budget Commission, comes during a time when Wyandanch confronts financial troubles deemed a "crisis" by the area's state lawmakers. On June 28, administrators in the 2,800-student district announced layoffs and pay cuts affecting more than 100 school employees, including teachers, teacher assistants, administrators, bus drivers and security guards. 

New York's courts for decades have heard arguments over the issue of whether the state's poorer schools can afford to pay for minimally acceptable levels of education. The question might seem surprising in a state where average per-student spending tops $24,500 a year — the highest average for any state in the nation.

The recent blog from the budget commission, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, contends that flaws in the state's system of distributing school aid provide some districts with more money than they need, while others are shortchanged. New York will pass out more than $27 billion in funding during the 2019-20 school year, including more than $3 billion on Long Island. 

Among systems identified as shortchanged are Wyandanch, which the report ranks seventh in terms of financial need statewide, and Brentwood, which is ranked 14th. Ratings cover 674 districts statewide. 

"State-aid increases have been significant but poorly targeted," reported David Friedfel, the commission's director of state studies, who works out of Albany. "Districts that are shortchanged have struggled to catch up, while 'overfunded' districts continue to get more funding."     

Wyandanch's revenues for the 2019-20 school year will fall short of what the district needs by more than $3.7 million, Friedfel calculated. The shortfall in Brentwood, a much larger system, was estimated at more than $42 million.

Other systems identified as underfinanced were mostly small and located upstate. 

Most of New York State's funding for poorer school districts is funneled through a "foundation aid" formula, initiated in 2007. The system, in determining the amount of money going to each district, gives extra weight to students who are impoverished, speak limited English or are enrolled in special-education classes.  

Since last fall, a growing number of local systems, including Brentwood, Hempstead, Westbury and Wyandanch, have held rallies protesting what they described as inadequate state financial support and demanding a larger share. One such event drew hundreds of banner-waving students, teachers and others to a plaza outside a Mineola courthouse. 

The state's constitution requires all students be provided a "sound, basic education." Courts in recent years have defined this as a "meaningful" academic program extending through high school, which prepares students to meet civic responsibilities such as jury duty, while also readying them for jobs and lifelong learning. 

To meet legal requirements, the state Education Department analyzes spending in successful school districts where students generally pass state tests and exams. The agency then estimates per-pupil expenditures, adjusted for regional costs of living, that are needed to provide students with "sound, basic" educations.

The independent budget commission, in order to determine whether districts obtained enough revenue to fund such educations in 2019-20, looked at the aid package adopted by the State Legislature on April 1. The commission also estimated revenues due districts from local taxation and federal aid.  

Friedfel's blog was posted May 22, one day after the first round of statewide school-budget votes.

Wyandanch's spending plan, which carried a tax hike of more than 40 percent, was spurned by local residents May 21, with 332 "no" votes to 149 "yes" votes. The downward spiral culminated in a second budget defeat June 18, followed by a reluctant agreement by the school board to adopt a bare-bones "contingency" budget of $69 million for 2019-20.

More than $45 million of that money will come from the state.

The budget debacle was preceded by a series of state audit reports that blamed board trustees and administrators for allowing the district to operate in the red, for misspending money at education conventions and for other instances of fiscal negligence.

Local anger over mismanagement was underlined June 26, when state lawmakers and other community leaders held a news conference, calling for greater oversight of Wyandanch's finances. The previous week, legislators approved bills for assigning state monitors to Wyandanch and Hempstead, but the measures have not yet been sent to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for his signature or veto. 

"Wyandanch schoolchildren have been shortchanged for far too long, and while there is no doubt that this school district does not get its fair share of funding, we also need to ensure that every dollar coming into this district is being spent in the right places," state Assemb. Kimberly Jean-Pierre (D-Wheatley Heights) said. 

School authorities contend, on the other hand, that Wyandanch schools suffer from an underlying lack of money, whatever the district's management problems might be. The district has little taxable commercial property, and is the poorest in Suffolk County in terms of its overall tax base.

"It's more a problem of revenues than mismanagement — it's heartbreaking," said Monte Chandler, one of the district's attorneys.

Chandler, who heads a private law firm based in Valley Stream, jabbed at a legislative critic, saying, "What Kimberly Jean-Pierre needs to do is stop with the inaccurate criticism, and come with a check." 

Wyandanch's recent cost-cutting took a human toll.

Robert Bryant, 59, a security guard in the district for 13 years, recalled the reaction when he and other workers showed up at a district elementary school June 28 to receive notice of imminent layoffs. 

"It wasn't pleasant," said Bryant, who elected to retire in order to keep his health insurance. "You could see the faces of people who were, like, 'What am I going to do now?' "

Brentwood enters the 2019-20 school year in better financial shape than Wyandanch. Brentwood's $418.9 million budget passed in May by a vote of 839 to 568. 

Local school representatives noted that the 18,200-student Brentwood system offers stellar programs in some areas, such as science research and music, even though it also faces revenue shortages. 

One sign of underfunding, according to Superintendent Richard Loeschner, is that Brentwood Senior High School operates on a daily schedule of eight class periods, rather than the nine periods that are standard in most of the Island's secondary schools. Longer school days provide more time for advanced elective courses and academic tutoring. 

Loeschner added his schools also need more staff trained to deal with an enrollment that is 84 percent Latino, with 33 percent of students speaking limited English.

"I would never say we don't offer an excellent education — we do — but we could use more staff, psychologists, social workers," Loeschner said. "Some of our kids have experienced tremendous trauma, especially those who are newly arrived from other countries."

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