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Great Neck is model for why voters should support school budget on Super Tuesday

Graduation at Village School, Great Neck's alternative high school. Graduation rate is 100%, a mark of success for the district which is proposing a budget to support its mission to educate each child according to his ability.
Graduation at Village School, Great Neck's alternative high school. Graduation rate is 100%, a mark of success for the district which is proposing a budget to support its mission to educate each child according to his ability.
© 2014 Karen Rubin/

Super Tuesday this year arrives on May 20. That is when every school and library budget in the New York State goes before voters for approval.

It is interesting that these are the only budgets that voters get a direct say on – the rest are adopted by elected representatives and even piercing the "tax cap" requires only 3/5th of the elected officials. But because they are the only target at hand, too often, school budgets become the object for an anti-tax predisposition.

A budget does not just establish values and priorities, it provides the means to fulfill them – everything else is mere sloganeering.

The Great Neck budget deserves broad support because it is a win-win-win - a win for students, for taxpayers, for the community.

The Great Neck School Board did not take the easy road – they reworked the budget at least twice because of new developments as the budget was going from its preliminary, workshop phase to the final draft.

Significantly, Nassau County lost its bid to shift to school districts the financial burden of paying tax refunds on the assessments the county sets – this would have cost the district $2 million a year, or 1% of the entire school budget and about 40% of the allowed increase in property tax - mandated increases in health care and pensions take up the rest - leaving little to go into the classroom.

Our board prudently set the money aside last year so not to be confronted with a crisis of cutting programs mid-year, so had funds to tap to apply to this year's budget.

Secondly, the state came through with a small increase in state aid - $184,000 – though Great Neck still gets a relative pittance, which is why more than 95 percent of the funding for our schools has to be raised through local property taxes, compared to other districts which get 20, 30, 40 even 50 percent of their budgets paid for from state and federal aid.

Most significantly, Governor Cuomo got his property tax freeze that came with a promise to rebate to taxpayers the amount of the increase as long as the district stays under the property tax cap. This budget, with a 1.97% increase in the tax levy, stays well under the allowed cap of 2.39%.

That means that if Cuomo is true to his word, we will see the entire 1.97% increase coming back as a rebate check - an infusion of some $3.8 million into the local economy - come September or October (just before the November election, with checks likely to be signed by Governor Cuomo, so you know who to thank).

In the earliest draft, the Board made $1.3 million in cuts, then after the tax cert decision, restored $300,000. But that still left $1 million in cuts – to intramurals, teaching aids. Under the perverse regime of the Property Tax Cap, this would have meant that each year going forward, the district would have to continue to cut another $1 million then another $1 million, because you can’t restore the funding once it is cut. The system is unsustainable – it is forcing school districts to cannibalize their educational program – but the State doesn’t actually care.

And because of the tax rebate, cutting unnecessarily this year would also cut into what came back from the state as a rebate.

In the final version, the School Board put back $565,000 which restored prior cuts that had been made to intramural sports and teacher aide positions.

The total budget, $214,967,850 represents a 2.21% increase in spending overall. It is easy to take this total amount and simply divide by 6432 - the number of enrolled fulltime students in the district - and come up with a $33,271 per pupil cost. But that is not at all accurate.

That is because Great Neck's school budget does not just cover the 6432 students enrolled in the district's k-12 schools (a growing number), but transportation, textbooks, testing and nursing care for 1,500 students who attend private and parochial schools, the universal pre-K program, the summer recreation program (reimbursed from fees), and the Adult Education program (also paid for out of tuitions and grants). Few districts offer all these programs which serve our residents from toddler to teetering.

Of course we have a large budget - Great Neck has the second largest enrollment in the county. And yet, we are not at the top of the scale in terms of per pupil expenditure.

What we actually spend is $14,206 for K-6; $22,844 for grades 7-12, and $76,329 for special education, according to John Powell, the Assistant Superintendent for Business, who needs to do these calculations in order to know what to charge nonresidents for tuition.

Does this seem a lot? Not really. In fact, New York City spends $19,000 per student, and yet the biggest source of new Great Neck residents are families fleeing New York City public schools.

In fact, Great Neck is 31st out of 56 Nassau County school districts in spending on K-6 (the highest per pupil expenditure is $23,210); 39th out of 50 for spending on 7-12 (the highest is $31,035), and 4th in spending on special education (the highest is $100,030).

Also, the simple calculation of total school budget divided by full-time students is unfair because you are comparing Great Neck to other districts that do not have high schools - which have a higher per pupil cost; only 44 of the Nassau County's 56 districts have high schools; 11 don't have 7-12.

Powell analyzed Great Neck against 16 comparable districts over a three-year period, in how much we spend per student and how much we raise in taxes. "We're not at the bottom or at the top, but we compare very well against others."

"We've had to weather the challenges all municipalities face in operating under the property tax cap," Powell told the Great Neck Village Officials Association.

These figures alone - considering the success our district has in terms of graduation rates, test scores and admissions to college - show we get tremendous value for our tax dollars.

In fact, the district has for years been instituting policies to grow revenues to mitigate the pressure on tax revenue - charging outside organizations for the use of school facilities, for example. This year, the district earned $1.8 million more in revenue than last year, largely from taking in nonresident students into Great Neck's acclaimed special education programs. For next year, the district is projecting $17,632,361 in revenue, compared to $16,802,432 this year.

All around the county, the state and the country, you hear of school districts having to slash AP and enrichment programs, sports, art, music and theater - literally anything that is not absolutely mandated.

Remarkably, not only have we retained such important programs here - the programs that make going to school fun, teach important life skills and instill pride, achievement and self-confidence even among students who struggle academically - but this budget allows the district to begin offering Earth Science, a lab science, to every 8th grader next year and expand technology in the classroom with widespread use of i-Pads (lease rather than purchase to keep the expense down).

It also allows an allocation of almost $100,000 to secondary schools to cover course sections that might otherwise be in jeopardy.

Most significantly, the budget allows Great Neck to maintain the low class size that has been the hallmark of the district and the root of the district's academic success. No kindergarten will have more than 19 students; first and second grades will not be larger than 22; and third, fourth and fifth will have no more than 24 students.

The budget also provides for $3,532,000 in building and facility repairs and projects, as basic as replacing doors and boilers, flooring and roofs.

Here's another measure of how well the finances of this district are managed: Great Neck is one of only 23 out of the state's 4,700 municipalities with a Triple A bond rating, and only 8 of them are school districts (and Manhasset and Scarsdale are in danger of being downgraded because of weakened reserves).

However, regardless of how small the increase in the tax levy is, taxpayers will likely see a greater than 1.97% increase. This is beyond the school district's control - even if they cut the budget, taxpayers would still see an increase. This is because of continued decline in assessed valuation in Great Neck - it was $56,776,080 in 2009-10 and has fallen steadily to $42,339,105 (that is like a total pie shrinking in size, so we all have to pay more). It is also because we all wind up paying for the tax certioraris that your neighbors have won (more than one-third file and 87% of them succeed, Newsday reported).

That has caused resentment among taxpayers that the district, a careful steward of our tax money, does not deserve.

Another key component to recognize is that our enrollment has been steadily rising, not falling - though the tax cap does not take enrollment into account.

"We were constantly being told that schools are shrinking," Dr. Dolan said "The governor said there is no need for an increase in state aid because schools are getting smaller. But not so. There has been a consistent pattern of growth and while we can’t predict who will be here, the 5-year projection is for continued growth and the projections have been right on."

It is typical for Great Neck schools that students who start in kindergarten go all through to 12th grade. What is unusual is that many children are entering the district's schools at the middle school and high school levels. And secondary education is more costly to provide than elementary (another factor not considered in the tax cap).

The overwhelming reason why families move to Great Neck is our public schools, and that is because of the high rates of success.

Newsday did a recent article cheering how 53.6 percent of Long Island's graduating seniors in the class of 2013 received Regents Diplomas with Advanced Designation, up from 47.7 percent of graduates the prior year.

At Great Neck South, 99% earned Regents diploma, 89% earned Advanced Regents diploma, 1% an IEP diploma.

For Great Neck North, 97% earned Regents diploma, 77% earned Advanced Regents diploma, and 5% earned IEP diploma, last year.

What is even more notable is the extraordinarily high rates of graduation for students who are deemed "at risk," who likely would have been intentionally pushed out of public schools in other districts because these students tend to bring down the district scores and cause scorn to be heaped on administrators and faculty.

So it is notable that Village School, which caters to students who struggle in a conventional school setting and are at risk for dropping out despite their abilities, 100% earned Regents diplomas - 70.6% are going on to college and another 29.4% are going on to military service or jobs.

"This is for kids for whom the cells and bells of traditional high school don’t work – they are smarter, go to great colleges, they take Regents level courses, laboratory sciences, but they are the square pegs," noted Dr. Stephen C. Lando, Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Education.

Great Neck has been a leader in alternative education going back to the 1970s when the Village School was formed.

One of the most remarkable programs that Great Neck offers is the SEAL (Supportive Education for All Learners) Academy. Here, 25 students - "the most challenging students you will ever meet" - are educated by 5.4 full-time-equivalent teachers plus a psychologist who also serves as a coordinator.

Despite the intense focus of faculty, it's still cost-effective because it would cost the district more to send these students to BOCEs or other programs that are "similar but less effective" or even home teaching, Lando told the Great Neck Village Officials Association.

"This program saves lives - a child of 14 or 15 who would otherwise have been out looking for work, or suicidal."

But what do the comparisons mean anyway? Dr. William Shine, who was GNPS superintendent when the Accountability Movement was codified as No Child Left Behind, forewarned that the purpose of publishing the results in the newspaper would invite "invidious" comparisons even though a difference of one or two students can shift a ranking two or three places and people do not even understand how the rankings are determined, and be used in establishing home values. But it is precisely this comparison that George W. Bush wanted and encouraged.

Publishing the test results, George W. Bush said, would “show us whether or not you’re achieving objectives with all this money we’re sending you… so all parents, all teachers, can monitor progress of their local schools, their schools relative to other schools in the neighborhood, the schools relative to schools from county to county…an effective measurement system is one that says, oh, by the way, here are the results for everybody to see—not just a few people…We want full disclosure…” That way, “If you’re fixing to move from point X to Florida…you’ll be able to get on the Internet and you can determine whether the school in your particular neighborhood, how it’s faring relative to other schools…” (Sept. 9, 2003)

Such statistics, invites a misplaced obsession with rankings, and, as Dr. Dolan noted, result in people looking at kids "in a sterile way," when the district prefers to look at students as individuals.

Because of the way the property tax cap is formulated, decisions today have impact year after year. The School Board did something very important: it looked six years out to see the impacts on the budget of the property tax freeze, taking into account significant changes and potential pressures on the budget. The reason It projects six years out, instead of the customary five, is because in that year, bonds will be paid off so less expenditure will go to debt service. In the perverse way the property tax cap is figured, debt service is not counted in setting the cap, so municipalities are actually penalized when they do not bond and incur interest expense.

Also, in contrast with most public school districts, school enrollment in Great Neck has been steadily rising, but the property tax formula does not take that into account at all. At some point, that alone forces school districts to increase class size, something that generations of Great Neckers have said was anathema.

Also keep in mind that the tax cap is limited to 2% or the CPI, whichever is lower - so if inflation kicks in again, we are at a loss, and if inflation doesn't kick in, we are still at a loss.

In the 6th year, for example, Powell is forecasting that the tax levy will only be able to rise 1.26%, but you can imagine that expenses - salaries, health and pension contributions - will likely exceed that rate.

"We are trying to prepare for the future by being exceptionally watchful.... We are not going to lay off 100 teachers because of a possible increase in pension cost. But there is a balance and we need to be aware and stress the need for a frugal use of resources," trustee Lawrence Gross said.

Newsday's article about the graduation rates pointed to the "guarded response" to Long Island's strong showing in graduation rates. "Some noted that schools in Nassau and Suffolk counties face an uncertain future as they try to boost achievement while also coping with state cap limitations on local property taxes.

"'I'm glad they are up -- obviously, that's helpful,' Roger Tilles of Great Neck, a member of the state Board of Regents, said of the latest diploma figures. 'The question is, will they continue to go up?'"

It's truly odd that public education seems to be the only area on the planet where lawmakers believe the amount of money invested does not correlate with results - we certainly don't see such an argument when it comes to CEO pay or military spending.

Our district though, has managed to stay above the fray, and by investing in low-class size and small schools, universal pre-K, academic intervention services along with enrichment opportunities, and extra-curriculars. It has preserved the ideal that is fundamental to its mission: to educate each child according to their own ability to fulfill their full potential. More than that, our district holds to the approach to teach the skills of problem solving, innovation, critical thinking and instill a lifelong love of learning.

That, more than anything else, is why our students are so successful in their schooling here and in their lives.

And it starts with the school budget which makes the ideal a reality.

North High Principal Bernard Kaplan, who has been in the district for 20 years reflected after one of the budget workshops, "In my lifetime, I have never seen an assault on public education like this – a poisonous atmosphere....

"Free and public education is not just important to Great Neck but is the basic foundation of a democratic society: it brings every child from every religion, contingency together to learn. When young people come from different races and backgrounds they not only learn to respect each other, but how to work together.

“Attention has focused on how all the wealth is going to the 1%,” Kaplan said. “The vehicle for social and economic mobility is education – we believe if you work hard in school, regardless of background, and you get help and support from caring teachers and school board, you can make it in America and can go from poor to rich. That’s the promise of American dream.

“And finally free and public education is important because that is an informed citizenry our country depends on. Every child needs to know what it means to vote and to question authority. [It is a privilege] to have school district that honors that."

This is a budget that protects our investment in our homes, our community, our children and our future, and it warrants our support.

Voting takes place on Tuesday, May 20, 7 a.m.-10 p.m.,

Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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