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Wantagh offers voter $81M schools budget

Unpredictability overshadows schools budget

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The Wantagh Union Free School District  Board of Education, advised by its professional team of Superintendent John McNamara and Associate Superintendent for Business Anthony Cedrone, has passed an $81.23 million budget for the 2020-21 school year. It is now up to the voters, who will go to the polls n June 9.

This year’s budget, representing an increase of 1.78 percent over the year-ago period, presented district officials with an exceptional array of financial and logistical challenges.

First among those challenges, is the aid the district is slated to receive from the state. The state budget, passed on March 31, includes roughly $17.88 million, an increase of slightly less than a $500,000, year-over-year.

That figure remained unchanged at the end of the state’s first look-back period, which ended on April 30. But with two more look-backs — for the period ending June 30 and the final period, ending Dec. 31, McNamara said he did not expect the district would be s fortunate.

“We’re prepared for about a 10 percent cut in our foundation aid,” McNamara said last week. “We have some equipment purchases and some maintenance that we’d been planning, and that we can defer until after the first of the year,” he said.

“If the state cuts any more than that — if they cut an additional 10 percent — then, we’ll have to cut into programs.” McNamara said his administrative team and the board are currently discussing those options.

Further complicating the issue, the State Legislature granted Gov. Andrew Cuomo the option of unlimited look-backs, depending on the state’s financial condition.

The state came into this year’s budget negotiations with a budget deficit of roughly $6 billion. With the Covid-19 shut-down, which hit the state at almost the same time as the budget was passed, that figure is expected to at last double.

Sales tax, a staple of both state and county budgets, is already projected to drop. In Nassau County, Comptroller Jack Schnirman estimated in a report late last month that the county has already lost about 12.28 percent, because of the shut-down of nonessential businesses. The figure could grow to as much as 28 percent of the county’s budget, or $360 million.

Schools do not depend on sales tax directly, but any substantial drop in the state’s sources of revenue is likely to have an impact on its ability to support school programs. And the federal government is has taken a hit as well, with more than 40 million Americans unemployed.

“We don’t know what the impact on Title I funds will be,” McNamara said. Title I was created to help support schools or school districts with children from low-income families.

As more New Yorkers file for unemployment, that figure is likely to grow. “The two words that characterize everything at this point are ‘uncertainty’ and ‘unpredictability,’” McNamara said.

This year’s tax levy of $61.12 million, an increase of $1.69 million over the year-ago period represented a 2.81 percent increase in the tax levy cap — within the allowable limit. Even there, though, local deferments on payments could create a ripple effect, leaving districts’ cash flows vulnerable.

At the same time, the board and administration are preparing for a number of different scenarios for September. Summer school will be conducted online, and everyone hopes classes will resume in September in the classroom.

But “If the virus comes back, we could be looking at a kind of rolling scenario, where we come back to school when it’s safe and work at a distance when it’s not,” McNamara said.