One of Long Island’s poorest school districts has warned residents they could face a cap-busting tax hike next year or cuts in students’ educational services as local officials struggle with what they describe as an unexpected $3.3 million budget deficit.
Wyandanch schools Superintendent Mary Jones confirmed the financial news in a recent letter to the community. That communication came after she and her staff faced questions from anxious taxpayers, parents and employees at a Nov. 14 board meeting, when an audit commissioned by the district pointed to overspending and overestimating of revenues.
State Education Department officials acknowledged Monday that Wyandanch faces "fiscal challenges," adding that they have asked the regional BOCES staff to offer assistance.
Jones' letter, distributed in English and Spanish, includes an extensive list of alternatives for saving money — for example, a hiring freeze, layoffs of clerical and maintenance workers, financial givebacks by employee unions and reductions in elective courses, sports teams and student busing.
Most of the steps that the schools chief listed would require approval by the seven-member board. The district, which has about 2,700 students and 400-plus employees, operates on a $71.3 million annual budget, up 3.76 percent from the previous year.
Jones also raised the possibility of a boost in property taxes during the 2019-20 school year that would exceed the state’s restriction on taxation. Any such move would require approval by at least 60 percent of those voting in the May budget and board elections.
Wyandanch's precarious finances were spelled out in greater detail in an audit covering the 2017-18 year, prepared for the district by the Islandia accounting firm R.S. Abrams & Co. The report, released at the Nov. 14 meeting, is posted on the district's website.
The audit's major points include:
- Wyandanch overspent its annual budget by $1,296,989 — a move described by the auditors as a violation of state education law. Key areas of overspending included employee benefits, bus transportation and programs for students with disabilities.
- District reserve funds plunged nearly $3.3 million, or 68 percent — money that the system now faces pressure to restore. The drop was caused by a combination of overspending and overoptimistic revenue projections.
- Wyandanch’s unassigned reserve — commonly called the “rainy day fund” and meant to meet emergencies — was wiped out, leaving the district with a balance of negative $1,185,812 in that area.
State financial "report cards” released in May by the state Education Department showed no districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties, out of 121 systems recorded, including Wyandanch, with negative balances in unassigned reserves.
Wyandanch does retain some assigned reserve money, but that is solely to cover pension costs and workers’ compensation, not general expenses.
The bottom line is that the district faces “considerable financial strain,” Jones stated in her letter, dated Nov. 19.
“It is quite possible that the district might run out of operating funds during the current school year unless costs and expenditures are kept under control,” she wrote.
Jones has run the system since 2014. She served an earlier stint as superintendent from 2008 to 2010.
Wyandanch’s drive to economize and rebuild reserves is underway.
Union representatives for the district's administrators and teachers were asked by the district shortly before Thanksgiving if their organizations would be willing to grant contract concessions, such as accepting a certain number of working days without pay. Labor leaders said they are giving the subject consideration.
“Of course, people are upset about it,” said Sharin Wilson, head of a 42-member union representing secretaries, nurses and technicians. “But under the circumstances, if this would save jobs, that’s a guarantee people would want.”
Meanwhile, large numbers of Wyandanch school workers, parents and community activists have vowed to continue showing up at board meetings to press for acceptable approaches to closing the budget gap. The next meeting is scheduled Dec. 12.
“I’m not happy about having any taxes raised,” said Denise Edwards, a retired disabled veteran, who spoke at the last meeting. “And I’m not happy about cutting programs like sports. This is what happens: They cut sports and the kids don’t have anything to do and we have too much gang activity.”
“At this point, the state should take over the district, because it’s a mess,” said Janet Villalta, another activist whose three children attend local schools.
Wyandanch’s budget woes reflect deeper economic challenges. The district is the poorest in Suffolk County in terms of property wealth and taxable income, and 87 percent of its students are considered economically disadvantaged.
Socioeconomic experts said that the district's problems reflect a broader, troubling reality: that a history of housing segregation on Long Island has created a situation in which a few districts struggle to keep up financially and academically with the majority of systems in the region that are in better financial shape.
“Long Island is one of the most segregated places in the country, and it shows up especially in education, where a handful of the poorest districts have the bulk of minority students and not much commercial property to tax,” said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.
Wyandanch’s enrollment was 50 percent Latino and 48 percent African-American in 2016-17, the most recent year recorded by the state Education Department.
Levy added that Wyandanch had shown gains in some academic areas in recent years. This, he said, provided hope that the district would find a way to balance its budget, perhaps with extra financial help from Albany.
A look at Wyandanch’s academic standing presents a mixed picture. Last year, LaFrancis Hardiman Elementary School raised its academic achievement and was removed from the state’s “priority” list of failing schools.
However, the district's other three schools — Wyandanch Memorial High School, Milton L. Olive Middle School and Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School — remain on state lists indicating that academic performance needs improvement. Those lists were for the 2017-18 school year. A state announcement for 2018-19 is pending.
In terms of high school achievement, Wyandanch ranks lowest on the Island in terms of students who earn advanced diplomas signifying adequate preparation for college — just 5.6 percent of graduates in 2017, compared with an Islandwide average of 56.4 percent.
At the district’s last board meeting, several students warned that any cuts in staff or programs were likely to put them at an even worse disadvantage than they already face, in comparison with students in other systems.
“This school district lacks a lot of things that other schools have,” said Malaysia Wright, 17, a senior at Wyandanch High.
As an example, Wright noted that the high school has no Advanced Placement courses — college-level programs that most other districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties offer.
Jones acknowledged this in a written response to Newsday’s questions, but added that Wyandanch students have other opportunities to pursue college-level studies through cooperative programs with nearby Farmingdale State College.
In her letter to residents, the superintendent blamed much of Wyandanch’s fiscal distress on financial misinformation that she said had been provided by Robert Howard, a district business official who resigned at the end of the 2017-18 year.
Howard now serves as assistant superintendent for business in the Northport-East Northport district. His boss there, Superintendent Robert Banzer, issued a statement last week expressing confidence in Howard and adding that he did not believe it would be appropriate for him to comment on administrative operations in another district.
“Prior to his hiring, the district conducted a thorough vetting process and his performance during his tenure here has met or exceeded expectations,” Banzer stated.
Howard did not respond to calls from Newsday.
Some Wyandanch residents and school employees said Jones should share in the blame for any management confusion within the district, noting that she recently has clashed with several subordinates.
Three current or former employees recently notified Wyandanch of their intent to sue Jones and the district for financial damages, saying either that Jones bore responsibility for the deficit or retaliated against them for trying to expose alleged corruption in the school system. The plaintiffs are Lisa Coalmon, an internal claims auditor; Laurie Dallas, a former accountant; and Kenneth Skeen, a maintenance crew leader.
The trio are represented by a Westbury attorney, Jonathan Tand, who said in an interview that the superintendent does bear responsibility for the district’s finances.
“She’s the superintendent. She’s head of the district and blaming problems on a subordinate is just a cop-out,” Tand said.
Jones, in an emailed message to Newsday, said she had been advised by the district’s attorneys not to comment on the pending lawsuits, which she termed “frivolous.” She added that the district “awaits the opportunity to pursue this matter in court where all the facts will be presented and reviewed.”
Estimated 2018-19 enrollment: 2,763 students
Current annual budget: $71,318,257
Approximate budget deficit: $3,300,000
Sources: State Education Department; Wyandanch school district