Friday, 12 April 2013 00:00
I read with dismay some of the specious allegations in a letter to the Manhasset Press last week (Vote ‘No’ on School Budget) and I felt that, as past President of the Manhasset Board of Education, I was in a unique position to correct some of the inaccuracies therein. While the board has not yet voted on the final budget number, I was told (because I asked) that the actual budget-to-budget increase is currently projected to be less than 3 percent and the tax levy increase is projected at less than 7 percent.
The writer alleges erroneously that there has been ”excessive spending” and that the “only cause cited [for the need to pierce the 2 percent tax cap] that is unique to Manhasset is increased enrollment.” The author needs to look back in time to see what else has been unique about Manhasset over the last several budget seasons.
Manhasset had one of the lowest budget-to-budget increases in the county for the past several years, due to the fact that the board had a self-imposed tax cap even before the state enacted one. One of the ways the board on which I sat was able to achieve this was by using reserves to reduce the tax levy. We heard repeatedly from vocal members of our community that the dollars that were in our reserve funds belonged to the taxpayers and should be returned to them. Within State guidelines, we took this message to heart, especially after the economic downturn of 2008 when we knew many residents had lost their jobs or had large financial losses. Therefore, we reduced the tax levy increase with the money in our reserve funds until last year when almost all of those funds had been returned to the taxpayers. As a taxpayer myself I recognize the present value of money and believe that it was to everyone’s benefit to put that money in the taxpayers’ pocket as soon as possible to invest or to use to live rather than keeping it in the school district’s bank account.
Many of the districts to which the author refers did not use reserves to consume operating costs and are still able to reduce their tax levies so that they are below the 2 percent cap. I know that our neighboring districts are doing just that because I examined their budgets on their websites, which are available to anyone who wants to take a look. Those districts are also trimming costs by reducing teaching staff by between 10 and 20 teachers, in many cases due to reduced enrollment and/or overstaffing but sometimes to the detriment of the academic program. Manhasset has already streamlined staff (except where required to increase due to special education mandates) and is fortunate to have been able to secure a short term labor agreement with the teachers’ union a couple of years ago that kept teacher pay increases relatively flat. It must also be noted that while the increase in enrollment may not seem huge to the author, many districts that are able to budget under the tax cap have had such large reductions in students that they have been able to sell or lease school buildings or reduce numbers of elementary school sections, neither of which are options in Manhasset.
While I am not sure I understand the author’s conclusion, which states “It has all the trappings of a political campaign: tax AND spend,” I do want to point out that the Manhasset budget has gone up over the last several years at a rate far below that of our neighbors, no new programs have been added, the administration has figured out how to house an increasing population that the prior administration believed would require more space and major renovations to house, the reserves have been returned to the taxpayers, the staff have agreed to collective agreements that do not further burden the budget and our outstanding superintendent has not had a pay increase in several years. That does not seem like a tax and spend budget. In the public sector, benefit costs have skyrocketed and that is outside the control of the district or the current board. The teachers in Manhasset were one of the first bargaining units in Nassau County to agree to a 20+ percent health care contribution, but the costs of pension and health continue to rise despite the recovery of the stock market.
I agree that our tax bill should not be one penny more than it needs to be. I do not have any children enrolled in the public schools. But I know that the school district needs 60 percent of the voters in May to understand and accept that the board has fulfilled its fiduciary duties as well as their obligation to provide the education for which we moved to Manhasset.
Manhasset Board of Education 2003-2012