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Excessive school-budget reserves burn taxpayers

A New York State comptroller's audit found that

A New York State comptroller's audit found that Plainedge officials overestimated expenses, including costs of employee benefits and special education, by more than $15 million over three consecutive years. Above, Plainedge Senior High School in North Massapequa. Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

During the 2015-16 school year, just over 11 percent of the property taxes collected by the Plainedge School District went unspent. For the 2013-14 school year, it was much the same, with more than 12 percent of the taxpayer dollars left in the district’s piggy bank of unrestricted cash reserves, which is against the law.

The state comptroller criticizes districts when they’ve let more cash pile up than they are allowed. This is not boring accounting. Plainedge is the 28th Long Island district to be admonished for exceeding the limit since 2014. Leaders of these districts generally say they are being conservative, making sure they have money for emergencies.

Plainedge’s board president and superintendent argued exactly that, claiming the district’s practices provide long-range fiscal stability and enable it to provide quality programs. And they pointed to its zero increase in taxes for 2017-18 to argue the district isn’t overtaxing. That, though, ignores hikes in 2016-17 and 2015-16. What it does make clear, however, is that the idea that taxes could go down is never entertained.

In Plainedge’s case, the unrestricted reserves aren’t the only extra money piling up. Four other reserve funds were overfunded, including one that held $7.2 million but spent only $1.2 million a year on average.

If school leaders want to argue that the legal limit on unrestricted reserves of 4 percent of the total budget is too low, they need to fight for a change of the law in Albany. As it stands, particularly in light of tax changes that will limit the federal deductibility of such taxes, they need to stop collecting money people can’t afford to meet expenses that don’t exist. — The editorial board