On Tuesday, May 15, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., at the E. M. Baker Elementary School and South High School, qualified residents of the school district will vote on the 2007-08 Proposed School Budget and on one board of education seat (incumbent Trustee Fran Langsner is running unopposed).
The Great Neck Board of Education is responsible for establishing the school budget. After extensive public discussion and input, during a lengthy and open budget process that started in the fall in our schools, the board has adopted the Proposed School Budget (also known as the General Fund Operating Budget) in the amount of $171,935,024 for the 2007-08 school year. The increase over last year's budget is 5.93 percent. The increase in the amount to be raised by real property tax is 4.93 percent. Both the budget-to-budget increase and the real-property-tax increase are the lowest since 2003 (in the last five years, the budget-to-budget increase was as high as 9.13 percent and the real-property-tax increase was as high as 9.93 percent).
The GNPS Board of Education (l. to r.): President Barbara Berkowitz, Vice President Judi Bosworth, Trustee Lawrence Gross, Trustee Fran Langsner, and Trustee Donald Ashkenase.
Over 73 percent of the budget increase is for mandated expenses over which the district has no control. These expenses include such items as Social Security, pension funds, workers' compensation, health insurance, and Medicare reimbursements.
In Nassau County, boards of education are not legally permitted to set actual tax rates and assessments of property. This is done by the county, based on its assessed valuation of property. Each year, for the past several years, the county has changed assessments and tax rates for virtually everyone. To minimize the impact of the county's shift of property tax burdens to homeowners and away from businesses and utilities, the Great Neck Board of Education has been proactive in promoting legislation to cap the increases caused by the shift to 1 to 2 percent. In addition, the board has indicated that it will apply the district's increase in State aid to further reduce the property tax burden. It is estimated that this measure will save residents 1 percent on their tax rate. While there is no meaningful way to predict what impact the tax-rate increase will have on an individual's property tax, our Class I (homeowner) school tax rate continues to be the second lowest of the 62 school districts in Nassau County.
The 2007-08 school budget supports educational programs and provides services that are essential for achieving excellence in our school district. Board President Barbara Berkowitz said, "Our mission is to provide the best possible education for all children ---an education that meets each child's individual needs, abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. At the same time, we must be fiscally prudent. Since everything has a price tag, the budget becomes a balancing act. Board members take their fiduciary responsibility very seriously and go over every line item prior to the adoption of the budget. We check the spending of every last dollar and we work diligently to make every dollar last. Three-quarters of every dollar in the budget is allocated for instruction, which is our first priority. The budget provides the resources and programs we require while being mindful of financial pressures. We have tremendous concern about the impact of taxes on our residents and we are grateful for their continued support for public education."
In its role as the external auditor of the school district, the accounting firm of Coughlin, Foundotos, Cullen, and Danowski presented an extremely favorable report on the management of finances in our school district. The report, which was discussed publicly by the external auditor at the December 4, 2006, meeting of the board of education, cited our school budget as a proactive statement that reflects positively on the strong financial position of our school district, including the excellent controls that are in place.
Superintendent Ronald Friedman explained that the "efficient re-employment of dollars in the 2007-08 school budget will provide an improved educational program." Dr. Friedman said, "This enables us, for the first time in four years, to be able to add educational value to the budget in the form of direct program improvements for all children, at all grade levels, in their classrooms." Among these improvements are: the addition of 6.5 secondary teachers (to teach new courses and to stabilize and reduce class size), a districtwide autism consultant, and a director of athletics, recreation, and physical education; technology enhancements; a major, districtwide, math-textbook upgrade over the next three years; initiatives in writing and reading on the elementary level; staff development and training at all levels; curriculum development in key areas; expansion of services and programs for special education and disabled students; and improvements to security and safety systems districtwide.
The school district is required to provide a substantial number of government-mandated services. Yet, the federal, state, and county governments impose these mandates without sufficient aid to meet their costs. For example, although state-mandated testing is required, there is insufficient funding from the state for this purpose; as a result, significant associated costs must be borne by the district. Similarly, a new state mandate requires calculators for every secondary student taking math courses; since no aid is forthcoming by the state for this purpose, our school district has allocated $75,000 to comply with the mandate.
The district is mandated by state law to provide transportation, textbooks, and health and other services to more than 1,600 students who reside here but attend more than 100 private, parochial, and special-education schools. Transportation, alone, is budgeted at a cost of $5,222,520 for these students. Over the years, state aid to the district for transportation has plummeted from 90 percent of the total cost to 6 percent.
Although our state aid has been increased this year, it is still behind where it was 18 years ago. In 1989-90, state aid was 11 percent of our budget; next year, it will be 4.89 percent of our budget and we have many more mandates to fund.
About $11.9 million in revenue is anticipated in 2007-08 from various sources, including Adult Program fees, driver education fees, summer program fees, rental of space in school-district buildings by community groups, grants, and state aid.
Fees for some of the district's summer programs have been raised by more than 6.5 percent, continuing the board's goal of reducing the impact on taxpayers by increasing the cost paid by program participants. This summer, it is anticipated that revenue from fees will cover from 70 to 100 percent of the costs, depending on the program.
The Great Neck school district participates in a number of successful, cost-saving, cooperative ventures with neighboring districts and with Nassau BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services), particularly in the areas of insurance, transportation, and the purchasing of equipment, food items, and supplies.
The Capital Projects and Building Conditions portions of the school budget address critical infrastructure needs of our buildings, which range from 42 to 90 years old. Addressing capital facility needs is an ongoing annual requirement; the budget allocation is $2,025,000. However, as a result of careful management by our district, a balance of $2,100,000 in the Capital Projects Fund and $1 million in the General Fund will also be utilized, along with $1,959,612 of EXCEL (Expanding Our Children's Education and Learning) aid, to finance upgrades to our buildings in 2007-08.
Efforts continue to effect energy savings for electricity, fuel, and communications. An extremely cost-effective, computerized, fiber optic Wide Area Network (WAN) will eventually connect the entire district with an upgraded, high-speed, digital telephone system, an upgraded data network, and a video security system. Its capabilities will greatly enhance communications performance in the district and benefit the education and safety of our students. The installation of the new system and its annual costs are eligible for Federal E-rate reimbursement.
A cost-effective, major energy-enhancing project will replace most district boilers (some more than 50 years old), add solar electricity panels on our four large secondary schools, and renovate and improve all heating-system controls. This will be accomplished entirely from energy savings in the budget over 18 years, with a guarantee of no net additional costs for the improvements.
Board Vice President Judi Bosworth reiterated that excellent record-keeping by the district has resulted in substantial reimbursements. As examples, she cited asbestos abatement and the E-rate funding for Internet and telephones. Ms. Bosworth said, "The government is diverting funds from public education and not paying its fair share. Public education was meant to be a joint venture, rather than funded almost entirely by local property owners. We are fortunate that we are living in a school district that enhances our quality of life and reflects the values of our community. People move here because of our schools."
Copies of the 2007-08 Proposed Budget are available at the Phipps Administration Building, 345 Lakeville Road. Reference copies can be found in the schools and public libraries. For more information about the proposed budget and/or about voter registration, absentee ballots, and voting, please call 773-1413.