Pulse of the Peninsula: Why to vote for G.N. school budget on May 16

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There are myths and outright falsehoods that surround the taxes which fuel resentment and anger that too often wind up being taken out against the only budgets we get to vote directly on: our schools and libraries.

New York State does not have the highest taxes in the country — New Jersey does (New York State is 4th).

Nassau County does not pay the highest property taxes.

Nor do Great Neckers pay the highest school tax rates.

In fact, if you look to table IV of the Great Neck Public Schools’ budget book you will see that Great Neck is 58th out of 62 Nassau County school districts, with a tax rate of $615.784 versus $1369.584 for Hewlett-Woodmere (No. 1) and $1072.533 for Syosset (No. 14), a comparable district to Great Neck.

Great Neck teachers do not earn the highest salaries, though based on how well our schools do in rankings (No. 1 in New York State, No. 5 in the USA), and how well our students  do in college, career and life, they probably should.

Nor do we pay $34,000 per pupil — a fallacy that the School Board continually tries to refute, which is based on a false analysis of taking the entire operating budget ($223 million for 2017-18) and dividing it by the student enrollment in K-12 public schools.

But the operating budget covers a lot more than the 6,500 enrolled students – some $6.5 million goes toward the 1,500 resident students who attend parochial and private schools, for example.

Also, programs like adult education, recreation and enrichment programs, are fee-based or repaid through grants or out-of-district tuition.

In fact, the district now earns more than $4 million in revenue.

Indeed, our public schools offer programs for the entire community, which few other school districts can boast.

What does the school district spend per pupil?

The State’s Fiscal Accountability Summary showed that the district spent $110,785,897 in the 2015-16 year on 6,426 K-12 pupils, or $17,240 per pupil, and $45,504,573 on 917 special education pupils, amounting to $49,623 per pupil, on par with comparable districts.

Our school district has managed to stay below the state’s property tax cap for more years than it has been mandated.

In fact, over the past five years, our average increase in property taxes has been just 1.8 percent. That is despite the fact our school enrollment has increased steadily, by more than 1,000 since 1990, when 5311 students were enrolled (and the district received $7.4 million, or 8.8 percent of its funding, from state aid, to 6,447 this year (when the state provided not much more, $8.8 million, or 4 percent of the budget). And enrollment is projected to continue to increase by 32 next year. Great Neck is one of the few school districts in the state that are seeing an increase in enrollment, but the property tax cap does not take that into account.

Nor does it take into account the fact that nearly 90 percent of our operating budget is funded through the property tax, while 50 percent of New York City’s budget is paid for out of state aid (our income tax), which is why city residents pay lower property taxes.

All of these facts are contained in a budget booklet and each year, anybody can attend the budget review session when literally every line item and every dollar is presented, explained, defended.

Our school board, administrators and building committees work scrupulously to create a budget that funds to the penny what they need. In the last four years, reduced the operating budget by $5.1 million.

Indeed, Great Neck is one of only seven school districts — and just 21 public entities overall — in New York State that has earned an “AAA” rating from Moody’s Investors Service.

It is to the credit of our school board, administrators, teachers and parent leaders that against all the forces that have conspired against public education, our district has managed to preserve a culture and adhere to its core mission that, simply put, is dedicated to providing the programs and services so that each child, regardless of ability, can fulfill his or her potential.

Fundamental to this is a commitment to low-class size.

The quality of our schools has been the number one reason that people move to Great Neck and for generations — in fact, going back more than 200 years — this community has always supported public education, recognizing that it is not only for the betterment of our children, but for our society, and also, to protect our housing values.

But the unthinkable happened in February, when the district’s capital projects bond referendum failed by about 100 votes with a very weak turnout.

For the first time, there is concern about what would happen if the budget does not pass — and it is pretty ugly: essentially, we would have to cut basically everything not specifically mandated — every program that likely makes school an enjoyable experience, a place where students want to come, participate and become lifetime learners, would have to be cut or require fees.

If you care about our children, our community, our society, you need to come out and on May 16.

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