School safety concerns dominate budget talks in Great Neck

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School safety concerns dominate budget talks in Great Neck
Parents and Great Neck residents lined up to question school officials and police officers about school safety at North high School. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)

School safety and security dominated talks at a preliminary budget meeting for the Great Neck schools on Monday night, with parents, police and school officials dedicating three and a half hours to the topic.

Both students and parents called for additional security measures, including upgraded ID cards needed to swipe into school and an enhanced police presence to deter any potential gunmen, as well as investing more in mental health resources.

The heightened sense of alert followed the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, where a former student shot and killed 17 people, as well as online posts some interpreted as a direct threat to the schools.

“This is a different time,” said Natalie Nassi, a concerned Great Neck parent, “and this is terrorism we are dealing with on a daily basis.”

Superintendent of Schools Teresa Prendergast addresses parents at a Monday night board meeting, along with security and building administrators. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)
Superintendent of Schools Teresa Prendergast addresses parents at a Monday night board meeting, along with security and building administrators. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)

School officials took time to underscore that while Nassau County police had investigated social media posts, which school officials emailed and texted groups of parents about the night before, they were ultimately deemed nonthreatening.

In that email, school officials said there would nonetheless be extra security measures on Monday, including increased police presence.

School officials also outlined a variety of safety measures already in place, like cooperation with local police and the state’s Department of Homeland Security, hundreds of cameras, a phone system that can remotely lock and unlock certain doors, and the LobbyGuard system, which checks people’s identification against databases.

There are also behind-the-scenes mechanisms that cannot be disclosed, police and school officials said.

Many parents at the meeting said the email messages were too brief and vague to offer reassurances of safety, contributing to many of their children being afraid and deciding not to attend school. But many parents also said they found the increased security reassuring and called for trying to boost investment in student safety.

Among those calling for tighter security was Oliver Pour, a student at Great Neck North. While he said many felt reassured about the increased police and administrator presence at the schools on Monday, he asked, “what about tomorrow?”

“We as students need to feel safe within our schools,” Pour said.

POP officer Dan Hedgecock fielded numerous questions from parents, including the scale of precautions taken, what their response time is, and if it's possible to have police on school campuses more consistently. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)
POP officer Dan Hedgecock fielded numerous questions from parents, including the scale of precautions taken, what their response time is, and if it’s possible to have police on school campuses more consistently. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)

In addition to outlining security measures, police officers and some parents also talked about the dangers of circulating incorrect information and a “rumor mill” that could unnecessarily ostracize individual children.

Great Neck parent Danna Sobiecki said some students, as well as their siblings, were specifically mentioned and targeted as a result of recent rumors. Consequently, she said, school administrators should “consider wild rumors as part of school safety.”

“This is horrible and should not be tolerated,” Sobiecki said.

John Powell, the assistant superintendent of business for the Great Neck schools, said in an interview the proposed $227.8 million budget dedicates more than $2 million to security costs.

This money goes towards contracting with an outside guard company, nine security aides on the payroll, and maintenance for security cameras and lobby guard machines, Powell said.

Additionally in the realm of security, Powell said the preliminary budget adds another psychologist and that might make it easier to “identify another threat.”

But Powell said school administrators intend to listen to input from future public hearings and could possibly make adjustments.

The proposed budget amounts to a $4.49 million boost from the current $223.3 million, or 2.01 percent.

This would be coupled with a 2.47 percent projected tax levy increase, or $4.9 million more than the current budget, which helps offset the cutting back of reserves and fund balance money.

This falls beneath the 2.85 percent tax levy limit imposed by New York state.

There will be a line-by-line review of the budget at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, March 24, at South High School, an informal hearing on Monday, April 9, at South High School at 7:30 p.m., an official hearing and adoption meeting on Tuesday, April 17, at 7:30 p.m. at North Middle School, and a discussion meeting on Monday, May 7, at South Middle School at 7:30 p.m.

Budget vote day is Tuesday, May 15. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

There will be four polling sites: E.M. Baker Elementary School’s multipurpose room for registered voters living north of the LIRR, South High School’s west gymnasium for voters living south of the LIRR, Saddle Rock Elementary School’s multipurpose room and Lakeville Elementary School’s auxiliary gym.

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