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Sachem schools must reallocate funds to pay for jump in special ed costs, officials say

Sachem Central School District Associate Superintendent for Business

Sachem Central School District Associate Superintendent for Business Bruce Singer speaks about the district's budget problems in Lake Ronkonkoma on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015. Credit: Barry Sloan

Sachem schools must reallocate more than $2.5 million in its current budget to pay for a jump in special education costs and workers' compensation, officials said, possibly forcing the district to significantly curtail clubs, sports and supplies to make up the difference.

Parents are abuzz, worried about possible teacher layoffs, and plan to come out in numbers for Wednesday night's 7:30 board meeting, which has been moved to the Samoset Middle School auditorium in anticipation of a crowd.

Administrators said they plan to keep classrooms intact, and said the 40 or so names on the district's agenda for resignation or termination represent routine staffing changes.

"The classroom instructional staff is one of the last places we would look to make reductions midyear," said Bruce Singer, associate superintendent for business.

Instead, administrators said, clubs with low enrollment will be eliminated and some sports teams will be merged.

Sachem serves 13,800 children and employs roughly 2,600 people, including 1,100 teachers, guidance counselors, social workers, librarians and other educational staff.

And while teacher cuts are not being considered, no new employees will be added.

"We will freeze staff hiring at the present point," board president Anthony Falco said.

Stephanie Volpe, who has two children in the school district, is eager to hear what the board will decide. She said she will reserve judgment until she learns their plan.

"I'm going to be there," she said of the meeting.

Voters passed a $296 million budget in May, but Sachem has since been hit with unanticipated costs, particularly in the area of special education services, which make up $2.2 million of the $2.5 million shortfall.

Nearly 1,900 Sachem students qualify for special education services.

That number has held steady for a decade, but the scope of the services has widened, pushing the cost from $54.8 million in the 2003-2004 academic year to $75.8 million last school year, including transportation and other costs.

Administrators cite myriad reasons for the increase.

"It's a combination of parents demanding more and the school wanting to do the right thing for the children," Deputy Superintendent Paul Manzo said.

The situation has placed Sachem in a difficult position; it had an "unassigned fund balance," or reserve fund, of just $16,000 in June.

It could, under state guidelines, have up to about $12 million in this fund.

Meanwhile, state aid of $119 million has remained largely stagnant since 2009, district officials said.

At the same time, other expenditures -- including pension, health care and the special education costs -- have risen sharply.

Some of those costs were unexpected. In January, the addition of 10 students with special needs cost the district $1 million, Singer said.

And just last week, a new student was found to need $250,000 in services annually.

But New York State Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan said the shortfall "appears to be a budgeting problem unique to Sachem school district."

"When the state budget was adopted on April 1," he said in a statement, "all school districts were well-informed of their final state aid numbers and had plenty of time before the school budget vote in late May to make adjustments to their tax levies to address any unanticipated expenditures that might occur."

Sachem could see a one-time influx of money from the sale of two buildings -- one could net more than $3.4 million -- but it's not clear when the sales will be complete.

Moving forward, the district anticipates far less than a 1 percent tax cap next year, not nearly enough to satisfy its needs, Singer said.

Overruns in the area of special education services are not new at Sachem. It was $3.4 million over budget last school year and moved funds this summer from several areas to make up the deficit.

Sachem tried to anticipate a similar increase for this academic year, boosting the special education staffing budget from $50 million to $53 million. But it won't be enough if more high-needs students move into the district or if already enrolled children are reclassified, officials said.

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