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Wyandanch schools chief considers $4M in cuts after budget defeat

Robert Beato speaks Wednesday at the Wyandanch school

Robert Beato speaks Wednesday at the Wyandanch school board meeting. Credit: Howard Simmons

Mary Jones, superintendent of the financially troubled Wyandanch school district, announced she was considering about $4 million in spending cuts, but provided few details, following a budget vote in which the district's proposed $77.8 million spending plan took the worst drubbing of the night in Long Island's elections.

Jones said at a Wednesday night board meeting that the district’s next steps would be discussed at a follow-up meeting May 29th.

Shouting matches erupted  among several audience members over questions of whether district funds were properly spent. Board President James Crawford, who won re-election Tuesday, tried to quiet the session, saying:  “We’re frustrated. Everybody’s frustrated. But we’ve got to work together.” 

Jones also tried to be conciliatory, asking audience members for feedback  on what the district should do next. But Tracey Edwards, Long Island regional director for the NAACP, who was in the audience, criticized the schools chief for not providing residents with enough financial details to make informed comments.

“Feedback on what?” Edwards asked. 

The public meeting  was preceded by a closed-door executive session, and took place in the district's administrative office on Straight Path.

Tuesday's school elections generally went well for education in most parts of Long Island, where 123 districts won adoption of their budgets, most by wide margins. On average, "yes" votes ran higher than 70 percent in the region. 

Before the vote, 57 percent of school superintendents in the Nassau-Suffolk region expressed concern in a survey that budget support might wane, due to recent changes in United States law reducing deductions of state and local taxes from federal income taxes. 

Newsday found, however, that the percentage of "yes" votes in Tuesday's elections regionwide — 70.67 percent — actually was up slightly from the 69.84 percent registered at this time last year. 

"I don't think we can say there was an impact, based on what we've seen so far," said Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, in reference to the potential effect of federal tax law. 

Lowry's organization conducted the survey of local superintendents in summer 2018. 

Voters' response ran in the opposite direction in Wyandanch, where the budget received only 149 "yes" votes to 332 "no" votes.

The result  had been widely expected, because the spending plan carried an increase in property-tax collections of 40.93 percent.  That was by far the highest put forth by any district in Nassau and Suffolk counties, and way beyond the 0.95 percent limit imposed on Wyandanch under the state's cap law. 

Two months before the vote, the state Comptroller's Office warned Wyandanch that its spending for the 2018-19 school year was outstripping revenue. Unless the imbalance was corrected, the comptroller's office warned, the district would close out the school year with a $3.97 million deficit.

State auditors added that the system's 2019-20 budget was in danger of falling even further in the red, unless the district cut back on spending or raised an additional $9 million in revenue. 

District officials responded that cost-cutting required to balance the budget would severely harm student programs and services. Instead, the board proposed expanding its budget for next year by more than $6.5 million, or 9.19 percent over the current year's figure, a boost in property taxes of more than 40 percent.

At the same time, Wyandanch's board left to local residents the decision on whether to start cutting expenses.

A separate proposition on the district ballot would have reduced student eligibility for bus transportation down to the bare minimum required by the state. That requirement mandates rides for students in kindergarten through eighth grade who live two miles or more from school, and for those in grades 9-12 who live three miles or more from school. 

The proposition, which district administrators said could save up to $1.6 million a year, would have potentially eliminated rides for as many as a thousand students. Voters treated that idea much like they did the budget, with 162 "yes" votes to 310 "no votes."

Two board incumbents held onto their seats. Crawford, the president, edged out his challenger, Justine Williamson-Saunders, 272-201. The vice president, Yvonne Holder-Robinson, got 246 votes, while her challenger, Natasha Dumerville, got 208. 

In the aftermath of voting, many Wyandanch residents now fear the district is running out of time and board members will ultimately have to impose the cuts they have avoided making so far. In recent months, Jones and other officials have cited a range of potential actions, including not only cuts in transportation, but also in teacher positions, athletics and other areas. 

"They made their own mess, so they've got to clean it up, but not at the expense of taxpayers," said Janet Villalta, whose three teenagers attend district schools. "The ones who pay the consequences will be the children."

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