Pulse of the Peninsula: Big choices for G.N. in school election, bond vote

The Great Neck community will have another opportunity to come out and demonstrate its support for public education and maintaining the excellence of our school district on May 16, when a revised (reduced) bond referendum to raise $68,339,262 to serve the district’s capital projects needs for the next 20 years comes up for a vote.

This is $17 million less than the original bond, which was defeated by 113 votes in February with an shamefully small turnout.

One theory is that the community, which has never before rejected the school district’s bond request, was complacent that enough voters would turn out in favor.

But the consequence of that was that the most forward looking projects to keep Great Neck on the leading edge of 21st Century Education — the building of a new Clover Drive Early Childhood Center ($6.6 million) for pre-K and to take up the kindergarten from overcrowded Baker school to serve the north end of town comparable to the Parkville Pre-K program on the south end, and a new building at Cumberland to house SEAL (Supportive Program for All Learners, which actually generates revenue for the district by accommodating out-of-district students and Pupil Personnel Services (another $9.8 million) — were sadly scuttled.

In addition, the scope of the proposed addition and interior alternations at Baker School was reduced by $1.2 million.

It is important to recognize that while the district allocates some $4 million each year on maintenance and capital projects from the operating budget, the projects that are funded through a bond — new science laboratories and media centers; new roofs, windows, masonry, toilet rooms and air conditioning in public spaces — are too expensive to be afforded within the annual operating budget. This is largely because of the ridiculous constraints of the state’s property tax cap that limits the increase in the tax levy to whichever is the smaller, 2 percent or the CPI inflation rate, coupled with the practical matter that the people living here today should not have to shoulder the full financial burden of improvements that last 20 years.

With the reduction in the amount that is being raised through bonding, the average home, which the county assesses at $750,000 would see a $203 increase in school taxes, beginning in 2021 when the full amount is bonded.

That amount — like a mortgage or a home-equity loan — would remain constant over the 20 years of the bond (there is no balloon payment), so in effect, would become less of a burden precisely because of inflation. I spent more than that on a dinner for four at a restaurant, with not nearly the same social or community benefit, or protecting the investment in my home value and our future as a society.

The school district has also done the fiscally prudent thing in pursuing this bond at this time because the last bond — from 20 years ago — will be paid off in 2018. If it lapses, taxpayers will see a much bigger increase in their tax bills when the district has to go out for a new bond.

Also, interest rates are still at historic lows, though expected to rise. What is more, the district is rewarded for its excellent fiscal management with a triple A bond rating.

Since the last bond 20 years ago, the school district spends regularly on capital projects — $42 million over the last  years. And in this capital program, which actually totals $77.8 million for all the scrupulously analyzed projects ($51.7 for building envelope condition critical projects and $26 million for educational and building enhancements), $9.5 million will come out of reserves.

Also, Great Neck is one of the few school districts in New York State that is actually seeing increased enrollment. This is particularly apparent at Baker school. In 2008-9 school year, enrollment was 6,200; the current school year has 6,507 and by 2021-22 school year, we are projected to have 6,619. The property tax cap formula does not take into account increased enrollment: while enrollment is increasing 2.7 percent for next year, the increase in the amount that can be raised from property taxes for the budget is limited to 1.26 percent.

The community will vote May 16 on the bond referendum at the same election as the school (and library) budget, as well as selecting two new board members from among six candidates running to fill the vacated seats of Lawrence Gross and Susan Healy — truly a “watershed election” as Gross noted.

As Rebecca Sassouni, running for Susan Healy’s seat, noted during the candidates’ panel on April 24, “It goes back to metaphysics: who are we, what are our values, who is involved in this community, what do we represent? These are value propositions, not only about money, but what is important about living in Great Neck. That’s what you vote on.”

See the district’s website, www.greatneck.k12.ny.us for details and answers to FAQs.

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