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Wyandanch school board approves $69M contingency budget

The Wyandanch school board approved a $69 million

The Wyandanch school board approved a $69 million contingency budget at their Monday night meeting. Credit: Anthony J. Causi/Anthony J. Causi

After an initial deadlock, Wyandanch’s beleaguered school board huddled privately Monday night and then voted 4-2 to approve a cost- cutting $69 million contingency budget for the 2019-20 school year.

The package will reduce spending more than $2 million from the current year.

The board's initial vote was three trustees in favor, two opposed and one abstaining. Board President James Crawford voted no in both rounds. 

The final vote came after trustees went back into closed-door executive session to see if they could break the deadlock.

As the board meeting broke up for the night, Crawford told a reporter he voted no because he was unclear on some details of the projected line-item cuts in the budget. Crawford said he could not provide details immediately and would have to review the budget first.

Many Wyandanch residents, upset by frequent reports of fiscal mismanagement in the district, have voiced hope that Albany will step in and help straighten out the mess.

Lawmakers voted Friday for a state-appointed monitor in the district, but whether that legislation will be signed into law by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and funded by legislators remains a question.

Monday's public board meeting in Wyandanch was held at the district's Central Administrative Office.

Voters in the 2,800-student district — the poorest in Suffolk County in terms of taxable income and property wealth — have twice rejected larger budget proposals over the past two months. The latest defeat came in a June 18 revote, when residents turned down a $73.3 million package, with 223 no votes to 139 yes votes.

Under the tax cap, Wyandanch would have needed a supermajority of 60 percent or better to pass a high-tax budget.  

Both of Wyandanch's rejected budgets would have raised taxes far beyond the state's allowable cap — the first by more than 40 percent, the second by 20 percent. Under the statute, two such defeats mean that a district faces both a tax freeze and contingency limits on spending for the next 12 months. 

For Wyandanch, the effects could be devastating. District administrators already have mapped out nearly $9 million in potential spending cuts for the coming year, in order to stay within contingency limits while also ending a prolonged period of deficit spending. 

The austerity plan calls for a $1 million reduction in student bus services, elimination of 18 teaching positions, cancellation of preschool and after-school programs, stoppage of coaches' stipend payments and dozens of other cost-cutting moves. 

“A lot of employees will be hurt by this,” said Superintendent Mary Jones, who presented details of the contingency budget to a largely critical audience of about 60 residents, teachers and others. “We apologize that this is necessary.”

Tom Walsh, a local union vice president, said during a phone interview Monday afternoon that 51 teacher assistants could lose their jobs, to be replaced by 20 full-time teacher aides, 15 part-time assistants and 15 part-time aides. Teacher assistants have greater instructional responsibilities than aides.  

Walsh, who has worked in Wyandanch for 15 years, said he and his colleagues are trying to remain optimistic, but worry about potential adverse effects on academic programs and students. 

"We do the best we can here," Walsh said, adding that his colleagues had won awards for their work. "It hurts me so bad, I get choked up when I think about it."  

New York's cap law first took effect in 2012-13 for a limited time frame. This year, state lawmakers made the law permanent.

Until now, the only district on Long Island forced by the law to deal with a tax freeze and contingency budget was tiny Tuckahoe in the Hamptons. Tuckahoe's turn came three years ago, when the district failed to override its cap on two ballot attempts.

In Wyandanch, another issue that is stirring debate is legislation allowing state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to appoint a monitor empowered to veto spending decisions by the district's board. The measure was among many approved in the final hours of the legislative session, which ended Friday.   

The measure has bipartisan sponsorship, including support from state Sens. John Brooks (D-Seaford) and Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore). 

"We believe the district is well in debt; they haven't paid bills for the last six months," Brooks said in a phone interview earlier Monday. "We felt we had to get a monitor in there."

Actual installation of a monitor is not certain. The governor would have to sign the bill into law, and an aide on Monday would only say that the measure is under review along with hundreds of others approved by the legislature this month. 

Funding for a monitor, estimated at several hundred thousand dollars, is another question. An aide to state Assemb. Kimberly Jean-Pierre (D-Wheatley Heights) said financing had not been confirmed. 

"We're seeing what we can do to fund it," said Brendan Cunningham, Jean-Pierre's chief of staff.

With Yancey Roy

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