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Rockville Centre school budget vote, trustee election, delayed until at least June 1

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For the past three months, the Rockville Centre Board of Education and administration have been fine-tuning the 2020-21 school district budget, and were prepared to move forward with a public discussion last week. The budget vote and school board election, however, have been delayed until at least June 1 because of the coronavirus pandemic, by an executive order issued by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. They had been scheduled for May 19.

At the district’s virtual board meeting on April 2, Superintendent Dr. William Johnson said he had heard rumors that school board elections could be canceled this year, but he added that he did not believe that would happen.

“I have seen an emphasis placed at the state level on making sure there is a vote for school board trustees,” Johnson said. “I think the state will make a concerted effort to make sure that the positions on school boards, and every other elected official in New York state, has an opportunity to run, and they will make every effort to make sure an election takes place this year.”

When that election might take place, he said, “is a whole other story.” It could be in June, or it could be pushed back as late as September, which, Johnson said, “many [in Albany] feel is better than no election at all.”

“And if that’s the case, there’s no reason why a budget wouldn’t be a part of that ballot,” he said, adding that he expected to have more information in the coming weeks.

“Any school board, library board, or village election scheduled to take place in April or May of 2020 is hereby postponed until at least June 1, 2020,” Cuomo’s order stated, “and subject to further directive as to the timing, location or manner of voting for such elections.”

If there continued to be many new cases of the coronavirus, the vote could be delayed further, state officials said.

Pushing back the vote will also give state and local officials a clearer picture of New York’s finances after tens of thousands of businesses were forced to close and sales tax collections plummeted. The governor had earlier predicted a $10 billion to $15 billion gap in the state budget, which is unprecedented.

The State Legislature passed a $177 billion budget April 1, but it is riddled with uncertainty because no one knows how long the pandemic will last, or what form it will take in the near future. Cuomo has said that modeling predicts the peak of cases in New York will occur within the next seven to 14 days, but the state could continue to see cases into August.

The district was planning to propose a $122.86 million budget, $2.6 million more than the current year’s spending plan, with a 2.01 percent tax levy increase, and had not anticipated any program cuts. School board President Tara Hackett said trustees would hold off on budget discussions until the date of the vote gets closer, but requested an update on the state aid potentially expected for next year.

“Right now,” Johnson said, “the numbers we have seen are surprisingly good.”

State aid is projected to be frozen at this year’s levels, due to the federal stimulus package, though Johnson said there could be mid-year cuts if the economy does not improve. The district had anticipated an increase of $300,000 in state aid.

“The pandemic adjustment that they have for us is about $427,000, which looks like the worst-case mid-year cut that we would have,” said Robert Bartels, assistant superintendent for business and personnel. “Obviously, it’s all up in the air. Anything can happen.”

Bartels said even if the number is that low, it will be “just under what the district had budgeted for” in its spending plan. “So it shouldn’t be a devastating hit, budget-wise, for us,” Bartels said.

“That’s good news,” Hackett said. “We had really come to a balanced budget. We were happy with where we were at this year.”

“In reality, this is all based on revenue,” Johnson cautioned, and, referring to the State Legislature, added, “It’s based on what they’re hoping they will have to support schools next year. They don’t really know that for sure.

“We’re hoping the numbers they gave us as a worst case possible will hold, but we can’t guarantee that at this point,” Johnson said. “We are going to have to be very conservative in the way in which we move forward with regard to our expenditures in the next fiscal year.”