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Angry crowd seeks plan for Wyandanch schools after budget defeat

Residents at the Wyandanch school board meeting on

Residents at the Wyandanch school board meeting on Wednesday. Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

An angry, overflow crowd at a Wyandanch school-board meeting Wednesday night erupted in groans and shouts when officials declined to provide specifics on how they planned to deal with Tuesday’s crushing voter defeat of the district’s proposed $73.3 million budget.

The defeat requires the district to submit to a restrictive "contingency" budget and tax freeze for the 2019-20 academic year. 

Some audience members called for removal of Wyandanch’s longtime superintendent, Mary Jones.

Early on, during a public comment session, one resident stepped up to a microphone and demanded the removal of Jones. The resident, Jarod Morris, told the overflow audience that he had gathered a removal petition with more than 600 signatures.

Several other residents confirmed the petition drive earlier in the day.

“I have just one request, and the request is that we find someone more qualified for the job,” said Morris, who works as a manager in retail security.

Jones, who has served 14 years as schools chief in Wyandanch, has another year to run on her contract, which includes a salary of about $230,000. The superintendent told a reporter before the meeting that she had no intention to step down from her job while under contract. 

She did not respond directly to Morris’ criticism, in accordance with normal procedure during public comment periods.

The rejected spending plan carried a projected hike in property taxes of just under 20 percent, which exceeded Wyandanch's state-imposed tax-cap, and required a 60-percent voter majority to win approval. 

Instead, the budget was rejected by more than 60 percent of voters, with 223 opposed and 139 in favor. It was the second defeat in two months and means Wyandanch will have to adopt a "contingency budget" with sharp restrictions in spending for the next school year, which begins July 1. 

The contingency budget is slightly more than $69 million, down from the current year's $71.3 million

In response to audience questions Wednesday night, Jones and other administrators confirmed the contingency budget would be adopted. They did not say, however, when plans for specific cuts would be made public, prompting groans from the audience. 

At a June 5 board meeting, district officials outlined reductions in personnel, programs and services totaling more than $8.8 million,  which they said would be needed to stay within state-mandated limits, and also to eliminate deficit spending that has been a chronic problem in the past. Projected reductions include:

  • Reductions of student bus services, including large-scale consolidation of routes for an estimated savings of $1 million. 
  • Layoffs or elimination of vacant positions affecting 18 teachers, possibly including those in "core" academic subjects, art, music and technology for a savings of more than $1.2 million. 
  • Outsourcing security guards and related services, saving more than $620,000
  • Elimination of two building principals and an assistant principal, saving more than $480,000.
  • Restructuring jobs of 68 full-time teaching assistants, including reduction of many positions to part time, for a savings of $445,000.
  • Elimination of coaching stipend payments for sports and of transportation to games, saving more than $314,000.
  • Cancellation of after-school academic programs and transportation, saving $400,000. 
  • Elimination of pre-kindergarten programs and shifts of kindergartners and fifth-graders to other schools, saving $250,000.
  • Five-day furloughs for the district's superintendent and three other top administrators, saving $12,346.   
  • Other reductions bring the total to more than $8.8 million

“We’re not getting the answers,” said Tanya Crawford-Bryant, a nurse and grandmother of three students in the district. “We’re tired of these things happening behind closed doors.”

Prospects of students losing academic, after-school and sports programs have left many parents dismayed. 

"I definitely am disappointed — I was kind of hoping the budget would pass, and I voted for it, but I knew it might fail," said Samantha Lawson, a marketing manager and mother of a third-grader. "Pretty much anything to help students, outside of regular academics, will be gone."

In the aftermath of budget defeat, some parents and other residents have concluded that school board trustees erred in ignoring a recommendation by district officials that they hold their proposed tax increase to 9 percent, and going for just under 20 percent instead. 

"They've learned, hopefully, that the community has the last voice, and not them," said Janet Villalta, a real estate agent and mother of three.

"I know they're going to make cuts — I just hope they don't cut the essential things," Villalta said. "Chemistry, math, history, English — students really need that. We keep saying that they need to be more careful how they spend the money."

 Wyandanch’s board president, James Crawford, offered no specifics on budget plans at the board meeting but urged audience members to cooperate with the district in future decision-making.

“I can’t just let people bash this and bash that without playing their part,” said Crawford, who works an an assistant high-school principal in another district,

One big reason for voter anger in Wyandanch was a series of state audits and other reports criticizing district officials for misspending money at education conventions and ignoring internal documents showing the system ran up budget deficits for more than two years running.  

State lawmakers in Albany and their representatives said they succeeded in obtaining an extra $75,000 grant for Wyandanch, and might possibly obtain more before the current legislative session ends, probably later this week. Representatives acknowledged the sums were relatively small, adding that Wyandanch's history of flawed administration makes their advocacy for the district more difficult.

"The issue with the district is that it comes down to financial mismanagement — it's no secret," said one key legislative aide, Brendan Cunningham. "The most disappointing part of it is that this affects services that directly affect the children of Wyandanch, who obviously are going to feel the pain the most.'

Cunningham is chief of staff for state Assemb. Kimberly Jean-Pierre (D-Wheatley Heights), whose legislative district includes Wyandanch. 

Wyandanch is one of only two districts statewide that will be forced to adopt contingency budgets, due to budget defeats in Tuesday's second round of voting, according to the Albany-based Association of School Business Officials-New York. The other district is Dolgeville, which serves a village community in central New York State. 

Ten other districts around the state passed budgets in Tuesday's revotes, according to the business officials group. 

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