It's safe to assume that most Americans, and probably the entire planet, know about the uncounted votes in the state of Florida during this past year's presidential election. This was a scandal of major implications for all involved - Floridians, as well as all Americans, and the rest of the free world. The media coverage was non-stop and reported in every detail, so I'm sure by now we've all heard, seen, and read an analysis of every possible implication.
Months before this election however, there was little or virtually zero media attention to a local election right here in Westbury that, in my opinion, is more scandalous in its implications than Florida's faulty election machines. The election I'm referring to is last year's Westbury School District budget. An expenditure increase of nearly five times the CPI (consumer price index) was proposed by the school district and the voters rejected it, not once but twice - with an unprecedented number of voters turning out the second time around, overwhelmingly against the expenditure increases.
One would think that with the voters decision clear - neither side is debating the outcome, every vote was counted - that there would be no increase in expenditures and therefore no significant change in the school tax rate. Fact: the Westbury Schools tax rate increased by more than 10 percent - nearly four times the CPI! It is scandalous that educators can legally tax district taxpayers more regardless of the decision of the voters!
If you look closely at your annual bank tax statement, as I did recently, you will see that your school tax payment, paid by Nov. 10, 2000, and second half due by May 10, 2001, is more than 10 percent higher than the year before. If you're a senior citizen, your year-to-year increase may be significantly higher, even after the Enhanced Star exemption. For example, my 81-year-old aunt, who still lives and owns a house in the district, paid nearly 20 percent more school taxes than last year - I know, because I manage her bills; my 86-year-old mother-in-law paid nearly 50 percent more! Sounds unbelievable? Check your own payments from this year compared to the previous year.
How is it possible that despite the voters' overwhelming rejection of any increase, the educators are still able to increase your taxes by 10 percent or more? The answer lies in Albany and with your local state legislators, who are under constant political pressure by our local, as well as the state's, education unions to protect their interests. Recent state law allows our local educators, without voters' approval, to raise expenditures by 120 percent of the CPI plus increases for any increased enrollment among our student body. This relatively new law creates a big burden for our district.
According to literature provided by our school district, there has been a 42 percent growth in student enrollment in Westbury since 1990 compared to an 11 percent growth in New York State. Many of these new arrivals have what educators refer to as "extraordinary needs." Because of changing demographics among our student population, many cannot speak English, and some are not literate in their own language, as such they require more resources - both in programs and teacher specialties - translating into higher costs. As the Westbury board president pointed out at a recent board meeting, "We have the highest limited English proficiency in all of Long Island." Furthermore, district literature points out that we have the highest "needs index" in the entire state. This is a major problem for our district and is expected to grow to crisis levels unless local officials start dealing with its causes and providing solutions.
What are the causes and what are the solutions? Some argue that the lack of strict enforcement of the housing occupancy ordinances, at both the village and particularly those areas within the Town of North Hempstead jurisdiction in our district, create a large part of the burden. If more people are jammed into the housing stock than they were designed for, this puts a strain on community services, particularly educational services.
Others argue that because our district has the highest "extraordinary needs index" in New York State, that state legislators should be lobbying more effectively for additional funding, instead of allowing this extraordinary burden to fall on the local taxpayer, namely you and me.
By the way, the educators are currently proposing a more than twice the CPI budget increase for next year. Approval of this year's budget would represent a nearly 20 percent increase in just two years!
What can you do to help solve this problem? Like all good citizens you begin by working within our system of government. We each have representatives at each of the levels of government mentioned above: state, town and village. These are people that we elect and pay their salaries - they work for us. Call your elected representatives, be polite and respectful - they deserve to receive the same treatment you would expect, and ask them what they are doing to solve the above problems and further let them know that you'll be looking for a more effective representative unless a solution is achieved by the time their term ends. Call the following: NYS Senator Michael Balboni, 873-0736; NYS Assemblywoman Donna Ferrara, 338-2693; NYS Assemblyman David Sidikman, 822-5590; Town of North Hempstead Supervisor May Newburger, 869-7700; Village of Westbury Mayor Ernest Strada, 334-1700.
I would be remiss in my reporting if I didn't report a fact common to all of the representatives above, and that is that none of the above reside within the Westbury School District taxing jurisdiction? At the risk of sounding cynical, I believe this is a relevant fact. For many years nearly all of the above public officials have expressed sympathy for our district's dilemma and some have arranged for some token, one-time funding aid, but nothing of a permanent solution. The question needs to be asked, would any or all of our elected officials be more concerned and aggressive in their efforts to solve the school district's problems if they had to pay the resultant tax increases?
Improvements in our community will only come if you, the voter, send a strong signal to our elected representatives that you expect solutions. Nothing happens in a democracy unless the people demand it. You can send that strong signal by calling each of your representatives, and finally, by making copies of this letter and passing it on to at least two of your friends or neighbors, within our district, and asking them to do the same.