Written by Wendy Karpel Kreitzman Friday, 25 March 2011 00:00
Mindful of the tough economic climate and the possibility of a state government imposed 2 percent tax cap in the future, the Great Neck Public Schools Board of Education has proposed a 1.99 percent budget increase that would bring the 2011-2012 school district budget to $193,324,596.
For this proposed budget, $182,231,882 will have to be raised by real property tax, amounting to 94.26 percent of budget revenue. Only $6,574,023 is expected from state aid, which now only accounts for 3.40 percent of the budget. The rest of the budget revenue, 2.34 percent, is listed as “miscellaneous.”
Once again, for the 2011-2012 school year, the major portion of funding goes to teaching —- 73.77 percent for instruction. Capital projects account for 0.96 percent of the budget; buildings and grounds receives 11.02 percent; adult education and recreation receives a 1.92 percent of the allocation of funds; 4.52 percent would go for general support; 6.47 percent of the budget would be for transportation; and 1.34 percent would go towards debt service.
Opening the March 14 budget hearing, the first informal budget hearing for the 2011-2012 preliminary working budget, Board Trustee Lawrence Gross, chair of the board’s finance committee, stating that the school budget is one of the few budgets in the state that is actually voted on by the public.
Mr. Gross said that the budget process began back in September, beginning in the schools. He said that many staff members participate in the budget process, as well as parents and members of the community who choose to become involved. Mr. Gross spoke of the strong community support for the school budget because the school board and the district is “very open” and the educational programs are exceptional.
Mr. Gross stated that the school district’s educational programs are geared to “meet the individual needs of each student.” And he said that “the budget will allow this.” But, in another vein, he also stated that “these are extraordinarily difficult economic times” and so the school district has “worked very hard to reflect that.”
At that point Mr. Gross noted that the budget is increased due to many items (such as pensions and health care benefits) that are not under the control of the district. “We recognize that our funds come from our own taxpayers and we are concerned,” he said.
Mr. Gross then reviewed some information, and some numbers, included in the budget (which is available to the public). During this discussion he noted that the district “makes every effort” to bring special education students back into the school district, and this, he said, is very successful and generally better education-wise and more economical too.
Again, stating that the school board understands the economic pressure everyone is experiencing, Mr. Gross emphasized that the school board’s role is to put the education program for the children first. Additionally, he stressed the importance of the district’s adult education program, which he termed “vital for the life of the community.”
Trustee Donald Ashkenase, who also serves on the board’s finance committee, reported on the possibility of a tax cap. He explained that the governor and the state senate both support a 2 percent tax cap (except for capital projects), a cap that would, if also approved by the assembly, come into effect in the 2012-2013 budget. And, as a result, the Board of Education decided to keep to this possible cap and come up with a budget increase that would not top 2 percent.
This, Mr. Ashkenase explained, is quite difficult in lieu of a mandated over $4-and-a-half million for employee benefits. The direct result of this is the need to cut that same amount from the budget. “It will be a real challenge next year if the tax cap is enacted by the legislature,” Mr. Ashkenase said. And he noted that State Senator Jack Martins has been a “leader” in working towards mandate relief.
At that point, Board of Education President Barbara Berkowitz noted that Senator Martins had met with the school board and that he had “gotten guidance” from the board and from Superintendent of Schools Tom Dolan. Ms. Berkowitz also emphasized that a tax cap “is not possible without mandate relief,” or there would be a “tremendous impact” on the district’s programs.
Dr. Dolan said that the upcoming budget required “lots of hard work,” making reductions in areas such as security, supplies, materials, non-instructional aides, transportation, and more. There was also a $500,000 building reduction and the retirement of 17 teachers also reduced expenses. Also, there was savings from last year’s retirement of 43 teachers (due to a retirement incentive).
Dr. Dolan also noted the savings from SAGES (supervisors and administrators) having frozen its salary schedule for the second year in a row. And he spoke of the district using “hard numbers” and if a “cushion” was utilized, this could be done only once.
As for any program changes due to the tight budget, Dr. Dolan said that any program changes would have “little impact” on the educational programs. He said that the district is still able to offer the same program, but they have cut all they can and “the only answer left is mandate relief.”
“We will be fine through this year, other school districts are not so fine; but we will need help next year,” Dr. Dolan stated.
Ms. Berkowitz echoed the superintendent, saying that she is “reassured that this year the children’s days will be the same.” But, she added, “We don’t know what’s gong to happen next year.”
When asked about class size, Dr. Dolan firmly stated: “We are not looking at larger class size.” Small class size has long been the hallmark of the Great Neck Public Schools and its Board of Education.
At the end of the budget discussion, the general consensus of the audience was in support of the 1.99 percent budget increase.
“We will find a way to do more with less,” Ms. Berkowitz stated.