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Wyandanch schools attorney: State monitor 'forced' on district

Monte Chandler, an attorney for Wyandanch schools, asked

Monte Chandler, an attorney for Wyandanch schools, asked the district's new fiscal monitor Wednesday how he would obtain a larger share of state financial aid. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

An attorney for the Wyandanch school district contended Wednesday night that a state-appointed monitor had been "forced" on the school system, under a law authorizing such oversight to help straighten out the district's tangled finances.

The lawyer, Monte Chandler, who handles Wyandanch's labor issues such as union negotiations, said in a written statement that the state Department of Education had intervened in the district with the appointment of Albert Chase, a veteran school business official, as fiscal monitor. Chandler asserted that the appointment followed reports of mismanagement in the district, but that this had turned out to be "a revenue problem, not a management problem," beyond Wyandanch's control.

Chandler went on to ask what Chase could do to help Wyandanch obtain a larger share of state financial aid. The statement was read at a public hearing — the first of its kind — inviting comment on monitors appointed this year in three districts, Wyandanch, Hempstead and Rochester.

Chase, who stepped into his monitor post May 1, responded that his work would include contacting state legislators to discuss Wyandanch's fiscal situation, while also checking with the education department on any available grants. Chase described this as making sure "revenues are maximized."

The virtual public hearing Wednesday, which began at 7:30 p.m. and was due to run to 9 p.m., was cut short at 8 p.m. after only two people presented comments and questions. 

Laws authorizing monitors for Wyandanch and Hempstead were adopted by state legislators in June 2019, then amended and signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in January. 

The two districts are the poorest on Long Island in terms of taxable income and property, and have been troubled for years by low student achievement. Wyandanch's status is especially precarious, because it was forced to operate on a bare-bones "contingency" budget, after voters rejected a proposed 20% tax hike in May 2019.

Now Wyandanch is trying again. For 2020-21, it seeks approval of a $71.7 million budget that would boost spending 3.94% and taxes 3.3%. The tax increase, while lower than the one proposed at this time last year, would exceed the 2.14% limit set for the district by the state's cap formula.

Chase has endorsed the district's spending plan, contending the proposed tax hike is reasonable, given the need to rebuild staff and student programs whittled down by austerity. On Monday, the district issued a statement, saying it had made multiple efforts in the past to boost student achievement — for example, by offering double periods of English and math to high school students. Many such offerings had to be cut after voters turned down the budget last year.

Some residents have questioned whether the budget, if passed, would lead to better academic results. Fewer than 45% of Wyandanch students graduated on time in the spring of 2019, the lowest rate on the Island. 

The attrition rate of students is "not acceptable," said the Rev. Joseph Jenkins Jr., a retired minister. Jenkins said he had cast his mail-in ballot against the budget.

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