Viewpoint: Vote May 21 to support G.N.’s schools, libraries

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Education has been appreciated as a singularly important ticket to upward mobility and the American Dream. No one has better appreciated this than the legions of immigrants who have come with virtually nothing to this country.

It is not a coincidence that Great Neck, which has been a melting pot for successive waves of immigrant populations, has one of the oldest public school systems in the country, celebrating 200 years in 2018.

It is also no coincidence that Great Neck’s public schools have consistently ranked among the best in the nation, that we have remarkably high graduation rates, that our graduates go on to success in college and career.

Nor is it a coincidence that as a result of the excellence of our public schools, our housing values are among the highest in the county. Our investment in education, in our children, in our society, pays dividends in many ways.

Politicians up and down the hierarchy try to attack taxes we pay, but this is the reality: because we are considered an affluent suburb, we get 4 percent of our school budget paid for through state aid (New York City gets 50 percent of its operating budget paid for through state taxes).

That means that 95 percent of our school budget – which includes a significant amount of funding, $4 million, for our students who attend private and parochial schools, as well as funding (recouped) for adult education ($3.7 million) and other programs) – is funded through property taxes. Indeed, 60-65 percent of our property taxes go to funding our public schools.

So what? What should amount to 60 percent of property taxes?

The reality is that our per pupil spending (and you can’t just take the budget total and divide by the number of enrolled K-12 students because it includes spending on programs including adult education, pre-K, summer recreation, and hefty amounts that go to support private and public school students), the salaries we pay our teachers are not disproportionately high.

In fact, when you attend the multiple budget meetings, you appreciate just how every penny of spending is so carefully considered and apportioned, a tribute to our administrators and elected school board.

On May 21, we are asked to vote to accept the tax levy for our public schools and libraries – it is the only tax that we actually vote on, and Cuomo has consistently ridden the bandwagon attacking school budgets as the cause of high property taxes.

This year he won a permanent tax cap that limits the amount property taxes can be raised in a year to 2 percent or the CPI (whichever is less, though the formula sometimes allows higher increases; the tax cap was as low as 0.17 percent in 2016-7), thereby undermining local control over our schools and libraries.

But even before the tax cap was implemented, our Great Neck School Board kept tax increases below the 2 percent, and in many years, including this year, did not raise property taxes even to the level allowed under the tax cap.

This is despite the fact that Great Neck is one of the few Long Island school districts that is seeing an increase in enrollment (the tax cap formula, remarkably, does not take into account increased enrollment).

This year, through a fortuitous combination of circumstances – low mandated increases and higher than 2 percent cap – the school district could have increased its budget 4.09 percent, but is only seeking 1.94 percent increase to cover the $207,518,286 needed to be raised through the Real Property Tax ($24.6 million is coming from state aid and revenues and $2,295,568 from appropriated reserves).

There were those of us who suggested the board increase its tax levy higher than the 1.94 percent because the budget becomes the benchmark for successive years. Who knows what next year will bring? But the board remained firm. But the answer was firm: the district does not raise a dollar more than it needs that year.

“The Administration and the Board have to balance the needs of our students with our fiscal responsibility to taxpayers,” Board President Barbara Berkowitz said. “We are especially mindful of the pressures on our taxpaying community.”

Most public school systems have had to shed all but mandated programs the punitive formula of the tax cap. Our students, our community is immeasurably enriched by being able to continue to offer programs that enable every student discover and fulfill his or her own potential – STEAM, music, theater, sports, publications, club programs.

“The Great Neck Public Schools provide a myriad of academic programs for students of all interests and abilities,” said Board Trustee Donna Peirez who is seeking reelection this year. “We are very proud to be able to offer these differentiated academic and extracurricular choices.”

This budget and this board deserve our support.

Vote Tuesday, May 21, 7 a.m.-10 p.m., to adopt the school and library budgets and to re-elect Trustee Donna Peirez.

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