Great Neck approves school bond and budget

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Dr. Teresa Prendergast, Superintendent of Great Neck Public Schools, steps into the room of parents eagerly awaiting official election results. (Photo by Janelle Clausen).

Great Neck residents approved a $223.3 million school budget and a $68.3 million bond on Tuesday, as a surge of voters came out to strongly back the public schools.

Voters approved the 2017-18 budget 6,772 to 1,607 and the revised bond 6,299 to 1,925 in what many described as a stunning turnout for public school advocates and strong rebuttal to those who rejected a $85.9 million bond in February.

There were 1,677 no votes and 1,564 yes votes cast in that referendum. In this election, “yes” votes increased by 4,735, while “no” votes  increased only 248.

“This was an eye-opener, for sure,” said Debbie Volk, a parent, referring to the rejected bond.

Counting absentee ballots, 8,379 qualified Great Neck Public School residents voted. A few people also tried to get on line around 10 p.m. For comparison, the budget votes from 2012 to 2016 only totaled 7,205 votes put together.

At least 30 parents waited well into the night to hear the official election results. They jotted down results machine by machine as John T. Powell, assistant superintendent for business,  got results over the phone in the Phipps administration building.

The results were not officially announced until after 1 a.m. Wednesday, due to procedures to be followed, unprecedented turnout, new voting machines and the number of absentee ballots.

But this spoke to the election’s high stakes, as well as the passion of many activists who pushed to get Great Neck to vote.

“We got almost 80 percent on the bond, 80 percent of the budget,” Don Ashkenase, a longtime trustee on the Board of Education, said to a group of parents and teachers eagerly awaiting official results in the Phipps building well past midnight. “It was an overwhelmingly successful evening and we owe it all to you.”

Board of Education trustees described the results as a validation of the public school system, but also acknowledged a need to reach out to other members in the community better.

“While there were some intense differences of opinion about the bond and the annual budget being voted upon, the fact so many of you became involved is a very good thing, as you expressed your opinions and exercised your right to vote, which are fundamental rights and privileges in America,” said Barbara Berkowitz, president of the Board of Education.

Jeffrey Shi and Rebecca Sassouni, often billed together on fliers as “team-pro public school,” were also elected as trustees.

The $223.3 budget maintains elementary and secondary school programs, low class sizes, training and professional development, and early drop-off programs. It also covers contractual salary increases, hikes in insurance premiums and other expenditures.

Property taxes also went up 1.26 percent, just shy of $2.5 million, which is equal to the state-mandated tax cap. Other revenue came from appropriated reserves, state aid and program revenue. The budget is 1.9 percent higher than the 2016-2017 budget, which was $219.147 million.

The $68.3 million bond will help pay for critical projects and building enhancements across Great Neck’s public schools. About $9.5 million is being drawn from the district’s reserve funds.

The total cost of renovations is about $77.847 million.

Among the critical projects, school officials said, are roof replacements, masonry reconstruction, and window and door replacements, which have a short life span. The cost of these repairs will be $51.7 million.

Another $26.1 million goes towards educational and building enhancements like science labs, auditorium renovations, library centers, a new parking lot and various other upgrades.

Jessica Vega, public relations coordinator for the school district, said in an earlier interview that the final bids might come in for less than what is being estimated.

“It will not be more than what’s estimated,” Vega said.

The bond is worth about $17.56 million less than the $85.9 bond rejected in February. It scrapped construction of a new building, reduced the scope of alterations at the E.M. Baker Schools and cut additions and alterations to the Clover Avenue School.

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