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Northport-East Northport school board makes few budget changes after critical audit

Students listen to a lecture on May 1,

Students listen to a lecture on May 1, 2013. Credit: Heather Walsh

Northport-East Northport Board of Education trustees found little need for improvement Monday night when they approved a response to a state audit critical of their budgeting practices.

New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli in October released the audit that found district leaders overestimated expenses by a total of $33.9 million over five years.

DiNapoli said the resulting unspent funds represented a "misleading" cost to taxpayers and he called for district officials to develop procedures that would ensure Northport-East Northport adopts budgets that more closely reflect actual spending.

In its formal response released Monday, board officials outlined the current budget process without identifying major changes to be made. Instead, they explained why they think the process already meets the comptroller's requirements.

"We do feel that our budgets were realistic," said Kathleen Molander, the district's assistant superintendent for business.

"We feel that we did not raise property taxes more than necessary and that was based on the past history of what those increases were. If you look at the past six years you see that the tax levy increase was 2 percent -- or less -- which was before the actual tax cap was implemented."

Trustees voted unanimously to approve the corrective action plan, a document in which officials are to explain how they plan to address the audit's findings. The district was required to provide the report within 90 days of the audit.

A spokesman for DiNapoli's office said he couldn't comment on the board's response.

In the audit, the comptroller also called for more transparency about district funds that go into reserves and how those reserves will be used.

The budgets "were transparent," Molander said. "All information was posted to the district's website, all information was presented publicly at public meetings and they [trustees] feel what the district did was correct."

Molander said the district is using its reserves as revenue, noting that as of June 30, the district had $11.9 million in restricted reserves. That amount is projected to drop to $9.5 million by the end of the current school year.

The board's corrective action plan included formalizing some procedures it already has in place and reducing the balance of the unspent funds gradually over time. Trustees said they had already reduced the fund by $950,000 over the past two years.

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