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State official scolds Wyandanch school board for inaction on deficit

Trustees' failure was "troubling, especially given the magnitude of the pending financial imbalance," the official wrote in a letter to the board president. The system faces a $3.3 million deficit.

Residents, students and employees of the Wyandanch school

Residents, students and employees of the Wyandanch school district attend the school board meeting on Wednesday. Photo Credit: Michael Owens

A top state Education Department official has scolded the Wyandanch school board for failing to take action to close a budget deficit estimated at $3.3 million and has ordered the board to report within 45 days on its plans to "ensure the long-term fiscal sustainability of the district."

Jhone Ebert, the state's senior deputy commissioner for education policy, stated in a recent letter to Wyandanch's board that its inaction was "troubling, especially given the magnitude of the pending financial imbalance."

Ebert said she recently was made aware that the district's superintendent, Mary Jones, had made numerous appeals to the board about reducing the deficit.

In October, Jones proposed eliminating the job of an assistant high school principal as an economy move. Board members balked at that plan after parents and students appealed at a public meeting for the administrator's retention, partly on grounds that he was the school's only Spanish-speaking official.

The deputy commissioner's letter, dated Dec. 7, was addressed to James Crawford, president of Wyandanch's board.

Crawford said Wednesday that he was preparing a detailed response and would have it ready by Friday.

Crawford added that the board had made no specific decisions in terms of deficit reductions, but had conferred with two top administrators from Western Suffolk BOCES to seek their advice. "I discussed with BOCES that we don't want to make cuts that directly affect the children and lose the gains that we made academically," the board president said.

Wyandanch's budget for the 2018-19 school year is $71.3 million. The district has about 2,700 students and 400-plus employees.

The school board held both public and private meetings Wednesday night, but the subject of the deficit did not come up in any public session. The board meeting ended around 10:30 p.m.

Wyandanch is the poorest district in Suffolk County in terms of taxable real estate and family incomes. Eighty-seven percent of its students are considered economically disadvantaged.

Last year, the school system was classified as being in "significant" fiscal stress by the state comptroller's office, but until recently conditions appeared to be improving.

All that changed on Nov. 14, when the district released a report from an outside auditor stating that the system had overspent its budget in violation of state education law and had exhausted its unassigned cash reserve, commonly called the "rainy day fund."

Five days later, Jones posted a letter to the community on the district's website, stating the school system was running a $3.3 million deficit. The budget hole earlier had been estimated at $1.3 million.

The superintendent has run Wyandanch schools since 2014, and also served an earlier stint from 2008 to 2010.

Jones' Nov. 19 letter to the community laid out an array of potential economy moves, including layoffs of clerical and maintenance workers, a hiring freeze, financial givebacks by employee unions and reductions in elective courses, sports teams and student busing.

She also raised the possibility of a boost in property taxes during the 2019-20 school year that would exceed the state’s property-tax cap restriction. Any such move would require approval by at least 60 percent of those voting in the May budget and board elections.

Meanwhile, large numbers of Wyandanch school workers, parents and community activists have vowed to continue coming to board meetings to press for acceptable approaches to closing the budget gap.

Wyandanch's precarious finances were spelled out in detail in the outside audit covering the 2017-18 year, prepared for the district by the Islandia accounting firm R.S. Abrams & Co. The report is posted on the district's website.

The audit's major points include:

  • Wyandanch overspent its annual budget by $1,296,989. Key areas of overspending included employee benefits, bus transportation, and programs for students with disabilities.
  • District reserve funds plunged nearly $3.3 million, or 68 percent — money that the system now faces pressure to restore. The drop was caused by a combination of overspending and overoptimistic revenue projections.
  • Wyandanch’s unassigned reserve — the “rainy day fund” meant to meet emergencies — was wiped out, leaving the district with a negative $1,185,812 balance in that area.

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