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District 13 seeks another vote on spending plan, makes more than $880k in cuts

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After Valley Stream Elementary School District 13 voters defeated a roughly $55.3 million 2020-21 budget proposal on June 16, district officials are returning with more than $880,000 in spending cuts, and plan to put a revised budget up for another vote.

On Tuesday, the District 13 Board of Education formally adopted a proposed spending plan with more than $400,000 in cuts to teacher and employee retirement and health insurance spending, $108,000 in reductions to the summer recreation program and $105,000 in cuts to pre-kindergarten. It would also hold off on equipment and textbook and classroom furniture purchases, as well as the hiring of two part-time instructors, among other cost-saving measures.

“We heard the public, we got the message, and we’re coming back with a budget that we hope the community will support,” said Dr. Frank Chiachiere, the District 13 Board of Education president.

The revised $54.4 million budget reduces any additional spending by roughly half, and would raise expenses by 2.51 percent and taxes by nearly 1 percent. Originally, expenses were set to increase by $2.2 million, or roughly 4.2 percent over the current year, and property taxes, 1.99 percent.

Should the revised budget fail to pass, the district would automatically adopt a contingency budget with a tax freeze and across-the-board cuts to expenditures, except those “considered essential to maintain an educational program, preserve property and ensure the health and safety of students and staff,” according to State Education Department guidelines.

District 13 was one of three Long Island school districts where voters rejected their proposed budgets. In particular, it was the 4.2 percent increase in expenditures at a time of deep economic uncertainty amid the coronavirus pandemic that became a flashpoint in this year’s school board election and budget vote.

The 2020-21 budget failed to pass with a final tally of 1,353 votes for and 1,522 against, a margin of nearly 6 percent, and challengers Anthony Bonelli and Bill Freda, in their unsuccessful bids to unseat incumbents Chiachiere and Patricia Farrell, made the district’s spending plan a centerpiece of their campaigns.

“I’m completely shocked by how disconnected the current school board is with its proposal to raise spending,” Bonelli told the Herald in the lead-up to the race.

Freda said the original budget showed “utter contempt for the financial stress residents are experiencing.”

Voting increased three-fold in District 13 this year, and sticker shock from a relatively high leap in spending coupled with an increasingly grim economic outlook likely created “a perfect storm” for the budget to fail, according to Lawrence Levy, executive dean for the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.

“With mail-in ballots expanding the voter pool, folks losing their jobs while already paying high taxes as everyone does on Long Island, and an increase that seemed to stand out from other districts, we had a competitive race where challengers made the spending plan an issue,” he said, adding, “This was a targeted pushback.”

With the incumbents retaining their seats, however, Levy said it “suggests the board may have an easier time getting the pared-down proposal approved in a revote.”

The budget vote also included two propositions, both of which passed, to approve the spending of roughly $400,000 in capital reserves to renovate the libraries at Willow Road and Wheeler Avenue elementary schools, and roughly $160,000 in reserves for the installation of Smart Boards and air conditioning in classrooms throughout the district.

District officials said, however, that those propositions could not move forward until they were passed in a budget vote. They expect a revote on the district’s spending plan on July 21 or 28. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, though, has yet to announce an official date.