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Financially-strapped Wyandanch school district to hold public hearing

Chancellor Betty A. Rosa at the State Education

Chancellor Betty A. Rosa at the State Education Department Building on Feb. 10, 2020. Credit: Hans Pennink

Wyandanch's fiscally troubled school district is scheduled to hold a precedent-setting  public hearing Wednesday night, under a new state law that empowers an appointed monitor to help restore the district's financial health, while giving local residents a voice in such efforts.

The hearing will be held from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Like other public meetings, this will be a "virtual" session in which the public will have a chance to ask questions and make comments online — a health precaution related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Wyandanch's session will be the first in a series of such meetings to be held under laws approved in the spring that authorize state-appointed monitors for both the Wyandanch and Hempstead districts. As such, Wyandanch's hearing was characterized at a state meeting Monday as an important step in Albany's efforts to intervene in struggling school districts without encroaching too much on local control. 

"It's a very thin line," said Roger Tilles of Manhasset, who represents Long Island on the state Board of Regents. Tilles spoke at a monthly meeting of the Regents board, which was also online and dealt in part with monitors' work in the districts of Hempstead, Wyandanch, East Ramapo and Rochester. 

The financial status of the 2,800-student Wyandanch system is especially precarious. The district is the Island's poorest in terms of taxable income and property values. 

Currently, the district operates on a bare-bones contingency budget of about $69 million, due to local voters' refusal in May 2019 to approve a higher spending plan carrying a 20% tax hike. On May 12, the district board approved a budget proposal for the 2020-21 fiscal year, which would raise spending about $2.7 million or 3.94%, and taxes, 3.3%.

The projected tax increase exceeds limits set by the state's strict tax-cap statute. As such, Wyandanch's proposed budget requires a voter majority of at least 60% to pass  when school elections are held June 16. 

District officials said the extra money would restore their student sports program, now running largely on donated funds. 

Albert Chase, a former Garden City school business official, who was appointed Wyandanch's monitor in April, endorsed the plan.

"I believe it's a responsible budget for Wyandanch, given the very difficult circumstances they face," Chase recently told Newsday. He added in reference to the tax hike, that "while it did exceed the cap, it does not exceed the cap by a tremendous amount."   

Some residents objected to the plan, either on grounds that sports should not be the district's top priority, or that the district's current operations do not leave them confident that extra money will be well spent.

One resident, the Rev. Joseph Jenkins Jr., a retired minister, said he already has cast his absentee ballot against Wyandanch's budget, in part as a protest against low graduation rates. Fewer than 45% of high school students graduated on time in the spring of 2019, the lowest rate on the Island. 

"The attrition rate of students is not acceptable," Jenkins said. 

Wyandanch issued a response Monday, stating that it had taken multiple steps to improve student performance, including establishment in 2018-19 of double periods of English for 11th-graders. The district added that it later was forced to cancel some programs, including the double periods for English, due to its failure to pass a budget in spring 2019. 

Wyandanch has another hearing scheduled next week, on the day after the budget vote. 

East Ramapo's monitors were first appointed in 2016. Those for the other three districts were named earlier this year. Chase, the state's appointee for Wyandanch, is authorized to review and help repair the district's finances. The appointee for Hempstead, William Johnson, who is retiring this year as Rockville Centre's superintendent, is empowered to review both finances and academics.