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Seaford B of E lays $73 million budget before voters

But imponderables will demand maximum flexibility as year unfolds

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Under the motto, “Staying Seaford Strong,” the Seaford Union Free School District Board of Education passed its $73 million budget for the 2020-21 school year. The district’s voters will go to the polls to vote on the proposed measure on June 9.

The budget represents a $2.35 million increase year-over-year, or 3.32 percent. The total amount of the budget covered by the property tax levy is $55.05 million and represents an increase to the tax

levy cap of 3.58 percent — the maximum allowable under the state’s tax-cap legislation.

The coming year is challenging for a number of reasons. Chief among them is the amount of revenue the district was slated to receive from the state, and which, because of the ongoing Covid-19 contagion, cannot be regarded as locked in.

At the same time, the board is asking for an increase in the tax levy of roughly $1.9 million, or 3.58 percent — within the allowable tax levy cap.

District Superintendent Dr. Adele Pecora pointed out that the district has gone to the full allowable amount of the tax levy cap in seven of the nine previous budget cycles. Given the likelihood of a mid-year reduction in state aid, the Board of Education, led by President Bruce Kahn, had little choice but to ask for the full amount, she said.

“Our budgeting for state aid is based on revenue projections made in January and approved in March, as the impact of the virus was just beginning to be felt,” Pecora said. Since then, millions of New Yorkers have been laid off from work, and thousands of businesses designated as nonessential have been shuttered.

The result is a drop-off in sales tax revenue — one of the largest sources of revenue for both state and county. In a report issued last month [[[NOTE TO JIM: I MEAN MAY]]] by Nassau County Comptroller Jack Schnirman, income from sales tax in Nassau County was projected to drop by at least $156 million, and could fall by as much as $360 million — 12.25 percent to 28 percent of FY 2020 21, respectively.

In normal years, the state is allowed three so-called look-back periods, during which adjustments may be made to schools aid, depending on the fiscal landscape. In recent years, the result has nearly always been positive for Seaford, with modest increases in aid.

This year may be different. The first look-back passed on April 30. The next two ending on June 30 and December 31, respectively, and Kahn and Pecora both said they expect state aid to be cut by between 10-20 percent, for a loss, at a minimum, of more than $1 million.

Further complicating the picture, the State Legislature this year granted Gov. Andrew Cuomo unlimited look-back powers. This means that he could opt to cut much more, or to eliminate state aid altogether.

“It’s really unlikely that the governor will eliminate all state aid,” Kahn said. “But it makes planning that much more difficult, when he can reduce what we receive at any time.”

The other big imponderable for the district is the school year itself. It is uncertain at this point whether schools will be able to open at all in September or will have to continue with distance learning. It is equally unclear, whether once open, schools will be able to remain open for classroom instruction.

Some school and elected officials have speculated that schools may need to prepare a rolling calendar, where instruction alternates between the classroom and home depending on the level of Covid contagion in the community.

Seaford was better prepared for the coronavirus outbreak than some local districts, largely due to the board’s and Pecora’s aggressive one-to-one Personal Digital Learning initiative.  Stating from zero two years ago, the district has rapidly reached a point where next year, every student will have access to a personal notebook.

This meant that where some districts had to first provide their students with hardware before they could even begin implementing distance learning, Seaford’s challenge was one of ramping up existing programs that were already in place.

Like most districts, Seaford is currently engaged in contingency discussions about which programs and expenditures may be deferred in the likely event state aid is cut. The permanent 2 percent tax levy cap enacted last year leaves very little room for belt-tightening. Neither Kahn nor Pecora were willing to speculate on the programs that might be on the block in the event of deeper-than-anticipated cuts in state aid.

But a number of Seaford’s signature initiatives, such as the 16 Habits of Mindfulness, are either revenue neutral or low-cost, despite their widespread implementation.

To continue providing for the mental health of its students, the district has hired a psychiatrist for the district, as well as contracting with Northwell Health for mental health services.

“We recognize that sheltering in place has put students in even more pressure than usual,” Pecora said. “The psychiatrist is an M.D., not simply a therapist.”