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Wyandanch expects $6 million-plus surplus when district closes books

Wyandanch school board president James Crawford.

Wyandanch school board president James Crawford. Credit: Howard Simmons

After two years of operating in the red, the Wyandanch school district expects to show a $6 million-plus surplus when it closes the books for 2019-20, a state-appointed monitor reported.

The monitor, Albert Chase, suggested in a new fiscal plan that Wyandanch might be ready within three or four years to approve a bond issue of $30 million or so for renovating and expanding aging schools. Chase cautioned, however, that the system "remains one major incident away from a financial crisis."

The 2,700-student district is rated the poorest on Long Island in terms of taxable income and property. In January, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed bills authorizing monitors for both Wyandanch and Hempstead.

Chase's fiscal improvement plan, issued earlier this month, noted Wyandanch's motto: "We Are Rising."

"And it is apparent that the district is indeed rising from the low point that it was at less than two years ago," the monitor added. "The challenge will be to continue unabated along that path."

Chase, a veteran school business manager, was appointed monitor in April by state education officials. He began his five-year term the following month.

Wyandanch is not the only district facing financial uncertainty. Cuomo has warned he may have to cut state aid to all districts by up to 20% — possibly within the next month — if the federal government does not provide relief to state and local governments still reeling from the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wyandanch relies particularly on state aid, and its share of any statewide loss could exceed $9 million, Chase estimated.

For the moment, at least, Wyandanch appears to be in reasonably good shape. According to the monitor, the district ran up deficits totaling nearly $3.1 million in 2017-18 and 2018-19, but stands to show a $6.3 million surplus in 2019-20.

Like many other districts, Wyandanch saved money after schools shut down between March and June, because it didn't pay for certain items, such as bus transportation. The monitor also cited stricter expenditure controls put in place by Superintendent Gina Talbert.

Wyandanch residents are paying higher property taxes than in the past. In May, they voted to override the state's tax cap and boosted taxation 3.3% — a move Chase endorsed.

Over the next four years, the monitor recommended that the district draw down its budget surplus by $200,000 annually, in order to curb further tax hikes. That's assuming anything remains of the surplus if state aid is cut.

Longer term, Chase suggests that district voters approve a bond issue. He notes most borrowing would be reimbursed by the state, and that some money could be used to replace pre-K and kindergarten classrooms now rented in a neighboring district.

Wyandanch's board president, James Crawford, told Newsday on Wednesday that board trustees, who approved the plan generally, had discussed the idea of bond borrowing.

"We figure it's a possibility, but we have to talk to the community to see if it's possible," Crawford said.

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