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Sachem school board to hold more meetings on possible school closures

The Sachem Central School District board held a

The Sachem Central School District board held a two-hour special meeting Wednesday night, Oct. 14, 2015, with school closures as the sole topic, and set another session devoted to the issue on Oct. 28. A third meeting has not been scheduled. Credit: Daniel Goodrich

The Sachem school board, facing budget constraints and dwindling enrollment, plans to hold at least two more informational meetings this fall on possible school closures.

The district, which serves more than 13,000 students, considered the possibility two years ago, but shelved those plans.

Board president Anthony Falco now says trustees can no longer wait.

"It is imperative that we reduce our expenditures," Falco said Thursday. "We have done everything we can internally as far as programs. We need to reduce the size of the whole footprint."

If any schools are to be shuttered ahead of the 2016-17 school year, administrators would need to commit to closures by January to allow time for reorganization, Falco said. Closing of two or more campuses would result in redistricting, he said.

Sachem, one of the largest suburban districts in the state, has 12 elementary schools, four middle schools and two high schools. Its overall student population currently is 13,577, down from 15,006 in the 2008-09 school year.

The board held a two-hour special meeting Wednesday night with school closures as the sole topic, and set another session devoted to the issue on Oct. 28. A third meeting has not been scheduled.

The district has not honed in on specific campuses.

While Chippewa, Grundy, Merrimack and Tecumseh elementary schools have the lowest enrollments, student population won't be the determining factor, Falco said. Campus location and proximity to new, large-scale housing developments also will be considered, he said.

The district, which currently has a $296 million budget, has been in financial straits for years. State aid dropped by $15 million in 2009-10 and has not been fully restored despite rising health care, pension and special-education costs, school officials have said.

Sachem's board has twice proposed budgets that pierced the state's tax-levy limit since the cap was imposed for the 2012-13 school year. Budgets that bust a system's tax cap must be approved by a 60 percent vote. The first budget that pierced the limit -- in May 2012 -- passed. The second, for a 7.49 percent increase, was rejected in May 2013 and the district held a revote, at the capped limit, which gained voter approval.

District budgets stayed within the cap for the past two years, but the system drew heavily upon its reserves. The district had less than $17,000 in unreserved, unassigned funds in June.

In September, the board reallocated $2.5 million in its current budget. It also made substantial cuts to custodial staff, clubs and athletics to bridge a budget gap, which it said was caused in part by a large number of special-needs students entering the district unexpectedly in the past year.

Parents and teachers may feel attached to one campus or another, Trustee Bill Coggin said at Wednesday night's meeting, but tough decisions must be made.

"You need to develop a spine," he told the board, to the applause of more than 250 people in the Samoset auditorium.


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