A few weeks ago, at a meeting of the board of education, I made a statement regarding the state's current system of school financing and asked the community to pull together and work for a solution that would benefit all Port Washingtonians. I then urged everyone to contact our elected officials and let them know that the current state system for financing education is not working. In last week's Port Washington News I was taken to task for urging the structural reform which I and others believe is part of a solution that could help the neediest taxpayers. It is interesting that the writer who criticized me has a long track record of only focusing on cutting spending for schools, regardless of the impact it may have on students. This has been so even when others have demonstrated that a combination of solutions can have the effect of reducing the local tax burden while also preserving the educational quality that our town has come to expect.
Complex issues require complex solutions. Unfortunately, the tempting tendency toward reductionism does little more than divide the community. Thankfully, however, many citizens and organizations are joining together to address the issue of adequately financing schools in a way which is equitable for taxpayers yet enables our schools to educate young people with the skills that are critical to supporting our democracy. These include individual community members and members of our BOE, who have taken the time to contact our elected representatives in Albany, as well as business and civic groups like Long Island Innovate, the League of Women Voters, the American Association of University Women, and many others who are helping focus attention on this critical issue.
Moreover, in a recent letter to a concerned community member, our State Assemblyman, Thomas DiNapoli, concurred and said, "We need to find a way to fund public education properly and without gimmicks." In order for him to be successful on our behalf, he needs to know that this is a priority for his constituents.
There are two types of people: those who just bemoan a problem and those who work to try and solve it. I will never apologize for being an activist. I believe that we live in a cooperative society, and that by working together we have the ability to create a better future. Yes, I do think the state portion of the school funding pie must be larger. Nationally, state and federal funding accounts for 57 percent of education spending. In NY the figure is closer to 37 percent. In Port Washington, the figure is only a bit over 5 percent. That means that the state forces more of the responsibility of financing education on the local taxpayers. In and of itself that is not so much of a problem, but the tax structure forced on the localities is a regressive one, which means that a disproportionate part of the responsibility is placed on those with the least means. Perhaps those who like the current system of taxation think the wealthy deserve special breaks, but I think with wealth comes responsibility, and that the obligation should be distributed fairly among taxpayers.
I strongly support systems that provide more aid to the neediest individuals, and I find any allegations to the contrary meanspirited and insulting. It is my sense of fairness which drives my desire to see that the duty of educating our children is not put on those with the most limited incomes. Certainly "Hempstead, Roosevelt and Wyandanch" are higher needs districts and should be given a greater percentage of funding than "Great Neck, Manhasset, Port Washington and Scarsdale", but while the letter writer may think that everybody in Port Washington is wealthy, I know that this is not the case. There is great need in Port Washington, and the 8.8 percent of children who meet federal guidelines and qualify for 'free or reduced lunch' bear out the fact that we have pockets of need greater than other nearby areas. Some people may not be aware of the impoverished children who live in Port and the fact the Port School District educates all our children at significantly less per pupil than wealthier districts but the reality is that we are a diverse community.
I agree that the state's definition of a "sound basic education" is not preparation for elite colleges. It is also not sufficient to equip young people to become productive members of a democratic society. If last week's letter writer attended the educational portions of our school board meetings he would know this. We should all be proud that last year all but one senior at Schreiber graduated. Contrast this to the figure of 65 percent statewide. While many of our students did go to prestigious colleges, 26 of our graduates went on to community college. Many of our students (who went to all types of colleges) were the first in their families to attain higher education and this is a true testament to our district's and community's ability to instill the importance of education in children who in the past may have been forgotten. We should not, as taxpayers, be penalized for being effective with our educational dollars.
The Port Washington School District is keenly aware of the effects of the current tax structure on residents of the community. Toward that end we have started a waste and fraud hotline, have combined director positions, worked to control costs in our negotiations and looked whenever possible toward outside funding to help offset costs. Coming off a contingency budget and starting with a lower cost per pupil than many of the other local districts this has been far from easy. Yet, we have proposed one of the lowest preliminary budgets on the North Shore. Nonetheless, cost-cutting can only go so far before the quality of education is impacted. That is why, while we must continue to be frugal with our spending, it is imperative that we work toward a revenue system which will give long-term stability to both the students and the taxpayers.
Last week's letter writer stated that our percentage of state aid is lower because things are more expensive on Long Island. Once again, this misses the point. Because costs and incomes are higher on Long Island we pay a higher share of income taxes than do other regions. Over $4 billion a year leave Nassau County in taxes to support other regions. While we have an obligation to support those less fortunate than us, it should not be on the backs of our residents with limited or fixed incomes. Many people think that our current tax structure is causing a crisis on Long Island. It is time that we took another look at the system and lobbied for meaningful change.
Others may prefer just railing against the system. I think that it is time to fight for real structural change. Yes, it is harder than just complaining but the best things in life are worth fighting for, and our community is one of those things. I deeply appreciate the faith and trust the community has bestowed upon me by electing me to the BOE and I will continue standing up for our children and our community.
For those interested in this issue, tonight (March 9) at 7:30 p.m., at the Manhasset Public Library is a forum on Education Funding Reform sponsored by the American Association of University Women. It will provide much more in-depth information than is possible in this space.