Great Neck school trustees and meeting attendees lamented about a “misinformation campaign” Thursday night they say has been launched as the proposed 2017-18 school budget and capital project, expressing a need to get facts out and correct the record as May 16 quickly approaches.
Among the claims debated were that the Great Neck School District was failing, taxes were excessive and enrollment was declining.
“There’s so many numbers that if anyone took the time to look at the facts, there’s no way they could put out some of these statements that we’re seeing,” Lawrence Gross, a 12-term board member, said.
Many present considered the opposition to the bond referendum and budget as an attempt to undermine the schools, including Trustee Donna Peirez, who was previously a teacher in the district.
“In case you haven’t heard, there are those in our community who don’t think that what we are doing is important,” Peirez said before the audience. “Please, get involved, support our schools, so that they may continue to maintain the essential work that they do.”
“It’s all about the kids. Thank you,” Peirez concluded, to a round of applause.
The board said that the schools were doing the exact opposite of failing: they were the No. one in the state, even with a lower tax rate.
“I can tell you, and every single member of the board can tell you, the money that is being spent is being spent prudently and is getting us results,” Gross said.
Gross compared Syosset and Great Neck school districts, which are similar in population and quality. He said that, when it comes to their schools, the typical tax burden based on a home’s assessed value is $1,072.
“In Great Neck, it’s $615,” Gross said- a 74 percent difference.
Gross also explained that the tax levy increase of 1.26 percent is well within the state’s imposed tax cap, which they have no control over. This is also under the projected enrollment increase of 2.72 percent from 6,354 students to 6,527.
Overall the proposed $223.3 million budget, which was adopted by the board and now subject to voter approval, is about 1.9 percent higher than the current one. Some $198.56 million is expected to come from property taxes. The rest of the budget comes from state aid, appropriated fund balance, reserve funds and other miscellaneous items.
Gross, referencing a copy of Newsday, said that the tax rates in Great Neck overall were among the lowest in Nassau County.
In the foreground of this conversation was the February rejection of the school’s initial bond referendum for school repairs and upgrades by 113 votes. This led to a new $68.3 million bond proposal, reduced by $17.5 million and to be paid over 20 years.
Some said the vote was representative of ongoing philosophical changes in the community.
Nikolas Kron, one of the three candidates for Board of Education trustee present at the meeting, said the issue among the opposition was not financial. “This is a philosophical pushback,” Kron said.
Officials noted that budgets and bonds had routinely passed by comfortable margins in the last few decades.
The last time a budget vote failed was “maybe 30 years ago,” said Barbara Berkowitz, president of the Board of Education. “Because it was too small.”
Residents in attendance made suggestions to go door to door, consider reaching out to the opposition and seniors, and learn who’s in the community to reach out to them better.
If the budget does not pass, it could mean millions less for students.
“If it doesn’t pass there are a number of things we can’t do, plus, we have to revert back to the tax rate from the preceding year,” Gross said. “It means, in effect, there would be 2.1 million dollars that we would not have available for the programs that we have.
In addition, it means that the base for future increases would be that much lower. So this would compound itself.”
Debbie Volk, a Great Neck resident for 20 years, said she originally came to the community for its public schools. But what’s at stake with the upcoming election, she said, goes beyond just education.
“The public school system is one big piece of the whole Great Neck package,” Volk said. “If you change a big facet of it, which is our public education, you’re going to change how Great Neck looks and feels.”
Residents of Great Neck will be able to vote on the bond referendum, budget and who should fill two seats on the Board of Trustees on May 16 from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.