On Tuesday, voters will be asked to approve a $77.95 million 2018-19 budget for the Wantagh Union Free School District. The spending plan is $1.08 million larger than the current budget, and the tax levy would increase by 2.82 percent, or an average of about $243 in taxes for the average household.
Given schools’ mandated expenses, like annual pension and medical cost increases for district employees, there’s no getting around the reality that homeowners will likely pay more in taxes this and every year to fund their school budgets.
These yearly proposals are complicated, often taking experts to make sense of them and often becoming the target of taxpayers’ complaints. We would be more comfortable voting for a spending plan if the officials behind it were more forthcoming about its details. But with so many of the community’s — and the Herald Citizen’s — questions about the Wantagh Union Free School District’s proposed budget not answered satisfactorily, we don’t believe the district’s Board of Education and administration have lived up to that standard this year.
Despite a 2016 state comptroller’s audit citing Wantagh as one of a handful of Long Island schools that chronically overbudget — and therefore overtax — the district appears to be doing it again. And few parents have questioned it.
In 2018-19, Wantagh will have 866 fewer students than in 2008-09. But the number of teachers has not decreased commensurately, and spending is still on the rise. Teachers make well above the average salary of a Wantagh resident.
The audit found that the district had amassed excess reserves, equivalent to between 5.3 percent and 8.6 percent of its annual budgets between 2012-13 and 2014-15. Yet this year, officials are asking to establish a $7.5 million reserve fund. Have they used those excess reserves for needed repairs and renovations? We can’t be sure, because they have not been forthcoming with financial records.
More than 200 district employees make six-figure salaries, which will result in hefty yearly pensions when they retire. But for two months this winter and spring, the district refused to make public an internal audit of its financial controls, which was released by an outside accounting firm in January, and approved by the Board of Education at its Feb. 15 meeting. Only last Friday afternoon, after multiple requests, including one submitted under the state Freedom of Information Law, administrators finally posted the 17-page report on the district’s website.
The Herald Citizen will be examining the document, and asking follow-up questions about it. We believe members of the public should, too. It’s your right to know more about how the district handles taxpayer dollars, straight from the auditors, and whether there’s anything it may have been trying to hide.
Given the number of unanswered questions about Wantagh’s school budget this year, the Herald cannot endorse it. Nor do we think, however, that we should encourage residents vote it down, and risk the elimination of sports and music programs under a contingency budget. We strongly suggest that in the days remaining before the vote, residents contact district administrative offices with any questions they may have about the spending plan.
Only one seat on the Wantagh district Board of Education race is up for a vote, and incumbent Trustee Anthony Greco is running unopposed. We believe that’s something of a statement: that district residents are generally happy with the quality of education their children are receiving.
If you are, and appreciate that the district is doing its best to hold the line on property taxes, then cast your vote for Greco. Board trustees are volunteers, and most work tirelessly on behalf of their communities, so even if, like Greco, they have no opposition, voting for them is a sign of respect and a show of support. We believe he deserves another term.