Viewpoint: Excellent schools? Good fortune has nothing to do with it

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Viewpoint: Excellent schools? Good fortune has nothing to do with it

“We are fortunate to have such good schools,” remarked Don Ashenase, the long-time serving Great Neck School Board trustee who volunteers his brilliance as a chief financial officer of major hospital institutions, and who has just been appointed to head the troubled Nassau County Hospital, in his typically self-effacing way.

He made the remark when I chanced upon him as he was walking in the neighborhood.

It’s not luck or good genes or some imaginary border that keeps out underachieving or per performing students so that our public schools regularly being among the highest rated in the nation.

In point of fact, we have the same proportion of children requiring special services as every other community.

Good fortune has nothing to do with it. It is the school board members who set policies, set the budget and make the spending decisions and, yes, who determine the school taxes we pay.

“We are fortunate” to have the quality of school board members we do to take on these extraordinarily complex and time-consuming positions without any compensation whatsoever – the equivalent of managing a $228 million enterprise with thousands of employees, dozens of structures, acres of grounds, navigating the complexities of myriad government regulations and mandates and competing constituencies – and especially, Barbara Berkowitz who has served as president since 2006 (and served on the board since 1992). And these are things that cannot be taken for granted precisely because of our success and because too often when individuals do such a great job, they make it seem easy.

We are exceptionally fortunate that both Barbara Berkowitz and Don Ashkenase, who has served on the board since 1982 and has proved ingenious in finding ways to continue to fund our schools to the level of excellence without piercing the tax cap, are seeking to continue on the School Board, and are running unopposed for reelection.

Way too few of us attend school board meetings, even the ones which are dedicated to setting out and determining the budget with incredible transparency and opportunities for public engagement, and so cannot really appreciate the skill and dedication the members bring to this task.

I venture that more complain without having the fundamental information about policies, programs, and the time, effort and thoughtful consideration that goes into making these decisions that impact the broadest range of often-competing constituencies that make up the “school district” – students, parents, teachers, administrators, support staff to be sure, but also the wider community – homeowners who do not have children in the schools, empty-nesters who no longer have children in the schools.

It’s so easy to look at a number and moan that whatever it is, it is too much. It is too easy to complain that the district should have spent money on this or that or spent too much money on this or that.

At recent meetings, parents demanded that the school board spend any amount, literally any amount, to ensure their children will never have to experience what the Parkland high school students experienced.

Another parent said in one breath that the budget was too high, and in the next that the school district should pay for his child’s baseball uniform (considering how other districts have had to eliminate everything but mandated subjects, it is remarkable we have the extra-curricular and intramurals that we have).

But what he was failing to see and most people don’t realize is that the total budget amount – $228,302,713, is not just for the 6,534 K-12 students enrolled in our public schools (a number that has been growing annually since the 1980s), when just about every other school district is shrinking).

It also includes more than $5 million in spending for transportation, textbooks, health services for 1,800 students who attend parochial and private schools; it includes universal pre-K (free); adult education (which earns fees and grants); other programs that are fee-based such as summer camp and summer enrichment.

It also doesn’t take into account the district earns some $3 million in tuition from out-of-district students enrolled in our heralded special education programs.

So while if you just divide the total budget by the number of enrolled public school students, you might come up with a per-student spending amount of $36,000, the actual per-student spending is $16,000 per elementary student, $23-24,000 for a secondary student, and $70-80,000 for special education students – well within norms.

Why is the budget increasing?

Well, unlike most Long Island school districts, Great Neck has been seeing steady increases in enrollment going back decades – a fact that surprises even government officials who should know better. And this has everything to do with the quality of our schools in attracting new families.

For comparison, enrollment in 1988-89 was 5,373 but is 6,534 this year and projected to grow to 6,595 next year – and since all those additional students don’t all fall neatly into two or three classrooms, it may require extra sections of classes.

Here’s another comparison: in that 1988-89 school year, state aid accounted for 10.48 percent of the school budget; this year, state aid covers 4.21 percent.
This preserves the Great Neck tradition, Superintendent Prendergast said, “of high achievement, academic excellence, excellent return on investment; history of sound fiscal management; commitment to continuous improvement, key element in making Great Neck a destination location, a major component of local economy, a place where many [former] students come back to live.”

I suppose, to pick up on Don Ashkenase’s phrase, “We are fortunate” in the way our community has for 200 years recognized the value of education. It probably has something to do with the fact our community has hosted waves of immigrants who bring a particular appreciation of education as the ticket to success in the larger society. The community should once again stand strong and not take what we have for granted. Because “luck” has nothing to do with it.

And we are fortunate in having the quality of people who have dedicated themselves to this mission: that each child, regardless of ability, has the opportunity, the tools and the resources to discover and fulfill his full potential.

Look around at what is happening in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kansas and Colorado to get a glimpse of what the alternative could be.

The school and library budgets are the only ones that we get to vote on directly, and therefore, become the object for general anti-tax ire.

Funny thing, though, is that no matter what state the economy is -0 when it is plummeting into recession, or as now, on a historic growth trajectory, people still complain.

But our school board trustees have done exactly what was asked of them, to come up with proper spending to provide our community with the services we demand and we expect.

The budget vote takes place May 15, 7 am to 10 pm, and two additional voting sites have been added: in addition to Baker School and South High School, the new polling places are at Saddle Rock School and Lakeville School (those voters who are in a new polling place are receiving notification, but you can also go on line to determine where to vote, at https://nb.findmypollplace.com/greatneckufsd/)

For more information about the budget visit www.greatneck.k12.ny.us.

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