What’s behind the unprecedented defeat of the $85 million school bond, the first bond floated in 20 years?
Was the bond irresponsible? Unnecessary? Padded? Absolutely not.
In fact, our school board and administration delivered the bond with more analysis and study, strategic planning, and communicated to the community (whether you chose to attend meetings, read a newspaper, or the detailed newsletter and cards the district mailed is your business) with greater care than Trump did in unleashing his life-changing Muslim/Travel ban.
Or was it an expectation that because the school bond and budgets always pass, no need for those who support public education to come out?
Indeed, the low voter turnout provides clues: 1564 voted yes, 1677 voted no, but here’s the spread: voters in the south voted in favor, yes 523 no 266; voters in the north, voted yes 971, no 1352.
And yet, the most ambitious part of the bond concerned remedying the overcrowding at Baker elementary school and the creation of a new early childhood center in the north, like Parkville in the south.
It used to be an article of faith in Great Neck that our community supported public education on behalf of all, that one generation helped another because, otherwise, spending the equivalent of $24,000 per child a year on tuition — over $300,000 over the course of K-12, multiplied by the number of children – would have been too onerous.
Now, in our community, there are always a significant percentage of our residents who never had or no longer have children in the system but nonetheless, supported our education system as a collective responsibility and also because our top ranked schools keep our home values high.
What is more, our school system doesn’t just benefit K-12 children in our community, but quite literally cradle to grave, with its pre-K program (which would have been substantially expanded and improved with bond money), Adult Education (which would have been substantially expanded and improved with bond money), even helping new parents.
But over the years, a sizeable proportion of families have preferred to send their children to parochial schools — some 1,700 compared to 6,400 enrolled in public school.
Even though our school district’s publicly financed operating budget gives tremendous financial support to parochial/private school families ($6 million in transportation costs, special ed, textbooks, nurses, testing costs, about $3500 per parochial/private student), some of these families have been less supportive of funding our public schools.
And I believe it is not because of money but more of a campaign to equalize parochial education by undermining public education in order to overturn the Separation of Church and State which bars public money from being used for parochial schools.
That is the essence of so-called “school choice” which would allow vouchers, paid out of public money, to be used to pay parochial school tuition (Cuomo tried to do this last year), where children’s minds can be better shaped and molded.
There is a faction of Great Neck that would be satisfied if our community would become Lawrence, or Cedarhurst, or Newburgh, where public schools have been drained of resources.
I wonder, too, if the opposition had something to do with what Village of Great Neck Mayor Bral said at the Feb. 7 presentation by the school board at his village hall.
He appeared miffed that the district is including a new Clover Drive building for pre-K and the Baker kindergarten rather than purchase his village hall.
The back-and-forth revealed that while the purchase of village hall was floated three years ago, Bral, during his election campaign in July 2015, had opposed it.
Having no reason to believe the property would be available, the school district, in its planning for the bond over the past two years, came up with the Clover Drive solution.
But in December, just four days before the school board was to vote to present the bond referendum to the public and after years of assiduous planning, Mayor Bral said he may have found a new site for village hall.
At the Feb. 7 meeting, he asked why the bond referendum couldn’t be delayed, and was told that it would cause the district to lose months to revising the bond and holding a new vote, and perhaps a whole year of construction,
The defeat of the bond conveniently opens a new window for negotiations.
“Today’s Bond Proposition came at the conclusion of years of meetings and assessing the needs of our school district,” Board of Education President Barbara Berkowitz stated. “While we have always maintained that this was the community’s bond, it is clear that portions of the community who were not in favor have spoken. More upsetting than this loss is the fact that this Bond has polarized our community. Therefore, before we can contemplate our next step, we will need to determine how best to repair this fracture. Our disappointment is obvious, but we will continue to do all in our power to address the needs of our children, our schools, and our community.”
The school board intends to take up where it will go from here at its meeting March 9, at South Middle School.