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State Audit Suggests Changes to Syosset School District

Comptroller’s report states district should bring administrator pay in line with similar districts

New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s February 2012 audit of the Syosset School District suggests that it spends exponentially more on salaries and benefits for administrators than districts with comparable standing. Syosset’s administrative salary costs were higher, ranging from $1.2 to $2.7 million over those years, than average costs at six similar districts consisting of Half Hollow Hills, East Meadow, Port Washington, Three Village, West Islip and Great Neck.

The three top people accounted for 89 percent of the district’s fringe benefit costs in the 2008-09 fiscal year and 91 percent the following year. The audit examined spending from July 1, 2008, through June 30, 2010.

The district’s spending, the audit report read, on salary fringe benefits ($121.5 million in 08-09, $124.3 million in 09-10), including contributions to tax-sheltered annuities, car allowances and premiums for life and disability insurance, accounted for 71 percent of general fund expenditures for both fiscal years. Salary and fringe benefits for administrative staff represented 5 percent of payroll expenditures.

The audit made one clear recommendation: Syosset should bring administrators’ pay in line with similar districts.

Syosset officials reported in response to the audit that their leaders earn more because they’ve worked in the district for more than 20 years and consistency boosts student achievement. The district’s budget expenditures of $178 million in 2008-2009 and $185.6 million in 2009-2010 were funded primarily with State aid, real property taxes and grants.

Board of Education President Marc Herman said in a letter to Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli that the district has had an administrative reorganization plan in place that anticipates $1.2 million in savings since 2008. The district expects additional reductions for the 2012-2013 budget.

Syosset administrators declined the Tribune’s request for comment, but released a statement concerning the audit.

“The Syosset School District is continuously evaluating its operations and looking for ways to reduce expenditures while maintaining the outstanding programs offered its students,” the statement read. “Over the past three school years, over $16 million in cost reductions have been incorporated into the annual budgets. Maintaining award-winning and innovative programs for students in the most cost-effective and fiscally responsible manner remains the top priority of the district.”

According to the audit, although the district’s total number of administrators was comparable to the average of these three similar districts, Syosset’s total salary costs for these administrators were higher. The district’s total base salary paid to its administrators exceeded the average base salary paid by comparable districts by $827,693 in the 2008-2009 fiscal year and by $384,044 in the 2009-2010 fiscal year.

“Syosset ranks in the top tier of districts across Long Island, the state and the country in student achievement,” read the district’s statement. “We are not the highest in any category except in student achievement. In Nassau County, Syosset ranks 28th out of 54 school districts for administrative costs, and 36th out of 54 for administrative costs per pupil.”

On average in 2008-2009, the comparable districts paid an average salary of approximately $130,000 while the Syosset paid an average salary of $159,000, the audit read.

Teacher and administrator salaries and benefits are being affected by both elected officials and by the impact of financial issues, including rising health care costs, pensions, declining enrollment and the 2 percent property-tax cap.

Governor Andrew Cuomo and educators announced a deal on Feb. 16 for a new system evaluating schoolteachers across the state. Furthermore, any district that doesn’t implement a new teacher-evaluation system by January 2013 will have to forgo its share of a reported $805 million increase in school aid planned for this year.

Notably, the new system gives the State Education Department (SED) authority to approve teacher-performance measures bargained by local school boards and their unions. The plan also more tightly prescribes what types of students’ test scores will go into evaluating teachers.

Cuomo has suggested a salary cap of $175,000 for school superintendents, using Syosset to illustrate a point about wasteful spending last year, which was met with ire from many school district officials and prompted many to redo superintendent contracts in an effort to keep them in place if the cap was enacted.

“The Comptroller’s Office did not include compensation of building department chairs in other districts and included Syosset’s district coordinators, even though they are the same job, inaccurately showing our numbers to be higher,” the statement concluded.

Syosset Superintendent Carole Hankin and Deputy Superintendent Jeffrey Streitman were among New York’s 10 highest-paid public school administrators in a November 2011 ranking by the Empire Center for New York State Policy and SeeThroughNY.net, Albany research databases that analyze state data.

Hankin made $506,382 in salary and benefits, while Streitman was seventh, with $368,557. The assistant superintendent for business had left the district at the time of the audit.

The superintendent is now getting a total of $541,454 and the deputy $419,033 in salary, benefits and “other,” according to the SED. The third highest paid is an assistant superintendent, who gets a total of $265,567.

Excluding those three top salary earners, the district’s fringe benefits cost less per administrator than those in other comparable districts, the audit reported.