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Published in Print: December 5, 2001, as N.Y. State Officials Threaten To Dissolve District

N.Y. State Officials Threaten To Dissolve District

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Warning that New York's only state-supervised district is on the brink of financial and educational bankruptcy, state education officials have threatened to disperse its 3,200 students to neighboring districts if the legislature doesn't come to the rescue.

Dissolving the Roosevelt school district on Long Island is "nobody's first choice," said James A. Kademus, the state deputy commissioner of education. But it offers a backup plan should legislators fail to provide the money or the governance changes needed to keep the district moving forward, he added.

"We are encouraging [legislators] to take this up" when they reconvene, probably later this month, Mr. Kademus said.

The legislature adjourned in October without reaching agreement on the issue. Meanwhile, the long-ailing district, which is managed locally but overseen by the state because of its troubled fiscal and academic history, is rapidly running out of money.

Roosevelt Superintendent Horace A. Williams hopes that the district will get help soon. "No one has stopped the political bickering long enough to say 'this is what we need to do,'" he said. "But I do believe [Commissioner Richard P. Mills] will take steps to say enough is enough."

Burdened with the smallest per-pupil tax base and one of the highest property-tax rates in Long Island's Nassau County, Roosevelt has run deficits for the past three years. Filling the budget hole projected for this year would require laying off at least a quarter of the district's staff and ending kindergarten classes, among other moves, no later than the end of January.

State education officials estimate it will take some $6 million on top of Roosevelt's $39 million budget this year to help the district pay for contracted teacher raises and keep from going broke.

The GOP-controlled state Senate passed a bill in October that would extend a $4 million state loan for another several years, and the Assembly's leaders pledged an additional $4 million in state aid for this year. Members of New York's lower house, which is dominated by Democrats, have been pushing for more money.

The Senate bill also calls for allowing Commissioner Mills to replace Roosevelt's elected school board with one he would appoint, with control returned to voters over a period of years.

Assembly Democrats also support that change. Since 1995, the state has left the elected board in place as it monitored the district, except for a brief period in 1996 when the state oversight panel served as the board. ("N.Y. Regents Oust Local Board, Take Over District," Jan. 10, 1996.)

'Benign Neglect'

Meanwhile last month, the state board of regents approved a series of steps that could put the state in charge earlier, and pave the way for dissolving the district.

The state panel that oversees Roosevelt has been directed to report by year's end on whether the district has met its fiscal and academic goals set by the state. If it has not— which the panel is almost certain to find—the school board can be removed and new boundaries drawn to allow neighboring districts to absorb Roosevelt schools, state education officials say.

Dispersing Roosevelt's students to the surrounding districts is not a popular plan there, and some call it a political impossibility. While the four districts adjacent to Roosevelt vary in their ethnic and economic makeup, none has as high a proportion of minority students or students eligible for lunch subsidies as the tiny, 1-square-mile district.

Some of the districts are struggling with overcrowding already, suggesting that there might not be space for Roosevelt students close to their homes.

Nonetheless, Assemblyman Steven Sanders, the Democratic chairman of the Assembly's education committee, praised Commissioner Mills for the proposal. "I think the commissioner is acting responsibly to say he'd take these actions rather than countenance another generation of kids getting a grossly inferior education," he said. He added: "I think it may be the thing we need to break the [legislative] log jam."

But Sen. Charles J. Fuschillo Jr., a Republican whose district includes Roosevelt and its neighbors, called the proposal an easy but unsatisfactory way out. "This is not just a corporation that has gone bankrupt and you can liquidate the assets," he said.

Both men, though, hope for a legislative pact this month.

In Roosevelt, where elementary schools have seen scores rise on state exams in recent years, residents disagree about dissolving the district and removing the elected board. But almost all view the situation as ripe for change.

"I know over the course of years there has been benign neglect," said Superintendent Williams, who arrived less than two years ago as Roosevelt's fourth chief in five years. "The 1995 legislation [authorizing state intervention] didn't provide any additional funds ... and money is an important fact in helping to reverse the inequity that exists here."

Teachers are used to textbook shortages, broken copiers, and buildings in poor repair, including one cited by the state for reeking of urine, said Kevin J. O'Connor, a science teacher at Roosevelt Senior High School and the president of the Roosevelt Teachers Association, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. But this year, he said, "psychologically, there's deterioration because of all the uncertainty."

Vol. 21, Issue 14, Pages 23,26

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