10/23/2013 2:00 PM
RACHEL YOUNG PHOTO | The Shoreham-Wading River school board at its Oct. 22 meeting.

RACHEL YOUNG PHOTO | The Shoreham-Wading River school board at its Oct. 22 meeting.

At Tuesday night’s Shoreham-Wading River school board meeting, Superintendent Steven Cohen reported that a budget shortfall in the coming school year could be $2.5 million more than previously anticipated, resulting in a total budget gap of $8 million and cuts in several course offerings, as well as over two dozen teaching positions.

Mr. Cohen reported in September that the school district faces a budget gap of about $5.5 million in the 2014-2015 school year. The projected budget gap has jumped by $2.5 million, he said, because the board had not yet calculated the average expenditure increase over the last five years in September.

The board had also “not yet decided [in September] to use that average as the best estimate for purposes of planning discussions,” he said in an email on Wednesday.

“This is to give the board and the community an idea of what a large problem we’re facing,” Mr. Cohen said on Tuesday of the projected budget gap. “This is the grim reality.”

Though the 2013-14 budget gap of $5.5 million was filled by dipping into reserves, Mr. Cohen said, that’s not going to be an option in the future.

“We no longer have reserves as a source of revenue, which means either revenue from some other source must be found or we must reduce programs, or some combination of these options,” he said. On-hand reserves of $10 million, and another $10 million in expected revenues in state aid over coming years would run out in two years if the board chose to fill the gap solely by using reserves, according to Mr. Cohen. The only other possible revenue source would be piercing the tax levy cap.

Mr. Cohen is in the process of meeting with members of the community for what’s he’s calling strategic planning sessions, to figure out which programs could be changed, which ones could be cut and which ones are considered essential the way they are in the face of a looming budget crisis. Three meetings remain, including a Nov. 6 meeting at the high school and another on Nov. 21 with the Wading River Civic Association.

If the district were to eliminate all non-mandated courses, Mr. Cohen said, the following programs and classes would be cut from the high school: band, chorus and orchestra, all business and technology courses, and the theatre arts program. At the middle school, the following would be eliminated: band, chorus and orchestra, and sixth grade health and foreign language courses.

In addition to these possible cuts, Mr. Cohen said, both schools could face reductions in class sections in subjects such as science, English, social studies and foreign language. The high school’s art program would also be reduced, as would the number of students eligible to participate in occupational education programs through BOCES, he said.

The potential cuts, coupled with increased class sizes, means a total of around 30 full-time teaching positions could be eliminated from the district’s current program, Mr. Cohen said.

AUDIT: STUDENTS RECEIVING FREE, REDUCED LUNCHES DOUBLES

Reviewing an external audit performed by a Port Jefferson-based accounting firm, the school board revealed that close to twice the number of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches nearly doubled in the past year, from about 45 to close to 90 kids.

“There weren’t major items we were concerned about and we didn’t get any serious discrepancies because there weren’t any,” board member Michael Fucito said of the audit, which was conducted by Cullen & Danowski.

While no issues were reported in regards to the district’s financial practices, the unanticipated costs will need to be taken into account moving forward, as an $8 million budget shortfall stares the district in the face in the coming school year.

The board voted 5-0 to accept both the independent external audit as well as a federal audit from last year. School board president Bill McGrath and board member Sean Beran were both absent from Tuesday’s meeting.

BOARD MEETINGS: EARLIER START TIME

The school board also decided to change the start time of school board meetings from 8 p.m. to 7 p.m. going forward. The change goes into effect at the board’s next meeting, which takes place Nov. 26.

School board vice president John Zucowski told audience members the earlier start time would help draw more residents to meetings.

ryoung@timesreview.com