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Wyandanch School Board says no to 9.8% tax hike

Denise Baines, president of the Wyandanch School Board,

Denise Baines, president of the Wyandanch School Board, listens to concerned community members during the Wyandanch School Board meeting. (Sept. 22, 2010) Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

Frustrated by her school district's financial woes, Wyandanch's board president says the system should close and send its 1,900 students to other districts nearby.

"We should just shut the schools down, and open up Lindenhurst, West Babylon, Half Hollow Hills and North Babylon," board president Denise Baines said in a phone interview Wednesday, hours before angry residents packed a board meeting, with many shouting for the board's removal.

In response, board members ruled out a proposed and controversial 9.8 percent tax hike, a decision that could force the district to cut teachers, sports teams and other services to close an estimated $2.4-million revenue gap.

Baines said the board would probably meet next week to decide what to do next.

Some residents who showed up to oppose higher taxes said they didn't like the idea of program cuts, either. "If you cut teachers, the classes are going to be sky-high," said Henrietta Smith, grandmother of a student.

Reaction from other districts on the question of mass student transfers was guarded.

"Without knowing the implications of absorbing any school district ... we wouldn't even begin to know how to answer that question," said Anne Marie Sorkin," president of Half Hollow Hills's board.

North Babylon and West Babylon declined to comment.

Legally, one district can absorb another only if residents of both vote "yes" - a process rarely used. In 2002, a threat by state education officials to close Roosevelt schools and reassign students to other districts proved politically useful in obtaining $16 million in state assistance there.

Wyandanch, like Roosevelt, is a mostly minority district with pockets of poverty, bordering other school systems with stronger tax bases that are mostly white. Wyandanch has the weakest tax base on the Island.

Wednesday, state authorities voiced sympathy for Wyandanch but added that student transfers were not the answer. The state, which faces its own financial problems, has offered no additional money for the district other than an unspecified amount of federal "Race to the Top" money, at a date yet to be determined.

"The best choice for the district and the community of Wyandanch is a fully functioning school district run by community members," said Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst), who also represents Wyandanch.

Analysts say Wyandanch reflects problems typical of fragmented suburban school systems, where poverty is concentrated in a few minority districts.

"If you could wave a magic wand - which you can't - you'd eliminate all these small districts and allow poor kids to be educated in wealthier, higher-achieving districts," said Lawrence Levy, executive director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.

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