Proposed 2015-16 School Budget
by Terry S. Hood and Jason Martin
Voting - On Tuesday, May 19, from 7 a.m.-10 p.m., at the E.M. Baker School and the William A. Shine-South High School, qualified residents of the school district may vote on the:
• 2015-16 School District Budget (Proposition No. 1)
• Establishment of a Capital Reserve Fund (Proposition No. 2)
• 2015-16 Public Library Budget (Proposition No. 3)
• Two Board of Education Seats (President Barbara Berkowitz and Trustee Donald Ashkenase are seeking reelection).
2015-16 School District Budget - After extensive public discussion and input, during a lengthy and open budget process that started in our schools, the Board of Education has adopted the Proposed School Budget in the amount of $216,697,754 for the 2015-16 school year. The increase over this year's budget is 1.23 percent. The increase in the amount to be raised by real property tax is 1.56 percent. Nearly all of the $2.63 million increase can be attributed to the hiring of additional instructional staff to support the Common Core, contractual salary increases for existing staff, Consumer Price Index increases in the district's transportation contracts, and higher health-insurance costs for employees. Mrs. Berkowitz said, "Once again we are faced with maintaining a challenging fiscal balance. We are pleased that, in this budget year, we can continue the programs we cherish, ranging from school preparedness in Pre-K all the way up through our diverse course offerings in Community Education, and including our Adult Learning Center, where adults can earn a high school equivalency diploma, prepare for citizenship, or learn English as a second language. In this budget, we are able to maintain small class size in our elementary schools, while closely monitoring our slowly increasing enrollment. The high value placed on education by this community continues to be one of the reasons why people come to live in Great Neck." Board Vice President Lawrence Gross said, "One of the things we've always done in Great Neck is provide a vast variety of programs at both the academic level and the extracurricular level. These diverse offerings can be adjusted to meet the needs of our students, and that's what makes this a special community. We want our students to leave our schools well-prepared for college and for life." Mr. Ashkenase said, "This is an effective budget. We're adding teachers next year, but we're able to keep the overall budget increase to 1.23 percent. We've been able to preserve our values--small class size and meeting the needs of every child in the district. Even in these difficult years, we've maintained the quality of education." Dr. Thomas Dolan, superintendent of schools, said, "I am pleased to recommend to the Board of Education a budget that preserves every program in the district, maintains our enviable class size, and makes some important enhancements to the curriculum. This is a progressive and responsible budget."
Capital Reserve Fund - The second proposition on the ballot is the establishment of a capital reserve fund. The school district is seeking the community's permission to establish a fund, in accordance with New York State education law, to finance future district-wide building improvements, construction projects, and possible replacement of existing facilities and property. If approved, the fund will exist for a period of 10 years, from July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2025. Its maximum value will be $19 million, and it will be funded by annual transfers of surplus money from the district's general fund, and any other sources as authorized by the Board and permitted by law, including transfers from the district's existing reserves. Mr. Ashkenase said, "We're proposing to take $19 million out of our reserves and put it into a fund so that we'll have the ability next year and in future years to improve our facilities. We are fortunate that we don't have to go out for a bond issue, so we won't have to pay interest on a continual basis. We are in an extraordinarily strong position." Mrs. Berkowitz said, "We have an aging infrastructure. The capital reserve fund will cover driveways, walkways, roofs, stairs, and other building repairs. These are items that need to be done."
Use of Reserve Funds - The 2015-16 budget includes $2.1 million in appropriated reserves, which are unspent funds from prior years. Some of this money had been set aside last year for anticipated retirement system contributions in 2014-15. The teachers' and employees' retirement systems reduced the district's pension contributions, so the money became available for use in other areas.
Optional Zone - In the 2008-09 school year, in response to concerns expressed by parents over the student population growth at South High, an "optional zone" was created. Students in grades 5-11 living in the Baker and Saddle Rock attendance areas, and zoned to attend South Middle School and South High School, may elect to attend North Middle School or North High School. The Board and administration said the optional zone has eliminated the need to construct new classrooms at South High School. Over the last six years, student enrollment at North and South High has gradually become similar in size. In 2015-16, the district expects near-equal enrollments at both high schools.
New York State's Property Tax Cap - The 2015-16 school year is the fourth in which school districts must abide by New York State's tax-cap legislation. This law requires districts to limit their tax-levy increases to 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. There are multiple factors, however, which affect the actual limit. John Powell, assistant superintendent for business, said, "The tax cap is actually a calculation that does not necessarily result in a 2 percent increase in the tax levy. According to the State's formula, the allowed increase in the tax levy for the 2015-16 school year is 1.56 percent. The calculation incorporates changes to the tax base, the rate of inflation, payments in lieu of taxes, debt payments, capital project expenditures, transportation equipment purchases, and pension increases above a certain percentage."
County Sets Tax Rates - Tax rates and property assessments in Nassau County are set by the County, not by boards of education. 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 either eliminate the shift or to cap the increases caused by the shift to 1 percent (rather than the 5 percent allowable by law). Mr. Powell explained, "Commercial real estate in Nassau County was reassessed in 1986, but residential property was not reassessed at all between 1938 and 2002. As a result, commercial property owners were bearing a disproportionately high tax burden. By law, the County has been shifting the liability to residential (or Class I) property owners by between 1 and 5 percent per year. Our Board has successfully lobbied our State legislators to keep this shift to the minimum annual amount." While there is no meaningful way to predict how the district's tax-levy increase will impact an individual's property tax, Great Neck's Class I (homeowner) school-tax rate continues to be among the lowest of all school districts in Nassau County.
Independent Audits - An annual, external audit of every public school district is required by State Education Law/Commissioner of Education Regulations. The certified public accounting firm of Cullen & Danowski, LLP, consistently issues unqualified audit opinions on the district's management of finances, emphasizing a strong financial position, including wise investments and an excellent internal control system of checks and balances, and procedures supported by Board of Education policies. Required internal audits of risk assessments are performed annually by the firm of Nawrocki Smith, LLP. These audits have consistently resulted in favorable reports for the district.
Moody's Aaa Rating - Great Neck is one of only seven school districts--and 21 public entities--in New York State to earn a rating of Aaa from Moody's Investors Service. There are a total of 4,720 local governments in the State. The district's Aaa rating means that its financial obligations are judged by Moody's to be of the highest quality, and subject to the lowest level of credit risk.
Government-Mandated Services - The district is required by the Federal, State, and County governments to provide a substantial number of mandated services, without sufficient aid to meet their costs. As a result, these costs must be borne by district taxpayers. For example, 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 dozens of private and parochial schools. Transportation alone is budgeted at a cost of about $4.5 million for these students in 2015-16.
Revenue & Savings - More than $14.3 million in revenue, other than property taxes, reserves, and fund balance, is anticipated in 2015-16 from various sources, including Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTs), tuition from nonresident students, community education fees, driver education fees, summer program fees, rental of space in school-district buildings by community groups, interest on deposits and investments, and State aid. In addition, district employees are paying an increased share of their health insurance premiums. Mrs. Berkowitz said, "We are mindful of the ever-present fiscal pressures faced by our taxpayers and we continue to seek ways of increasing revenue while reducing costs." Mr. Gross said, "We're constantly trying to bring additional revenue into the district. For instance, we have students from other districts who pay tuition for programs offered here, such as the Village School. We also have changed the way we charge for the use of facilities, in an attempt to offset the district's expenses." The Great Neck school district participates in a number of successful, cooperative ventures with neighboring districts, the Nassau Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), and the County, such as the Nassau School and Municipal Savings Initiative. These efforts bring cost savings to the district in the areas of insurance, special education, transportation, information technology, telecommunications, and cooperative purchasing. An example is the Nassau BOCES "Bo-TIE" service, which enables the district to purchase bundled Internet, telephone, and wide area network (WAN) services at a savings of about $50,000 per year. The district also participates in the federal government's E-Rate program, which reimburses 41 percent of the district's expenditures on Internet, local, long distance, and cellular phone service annually. Since 1996, when E-Rate was enacted, the district has received more than $2.3 million in reimbursements.
For More Information - Copies of the 2015-16 Proposed Budget are available (school days) at the Phipps Administration Building, 345 Lakeville Road. Reference copies can be found in the schools and public libraries. The Proposed Budget also on the district Web site at http://greatneck.k12.ny.us On May 19, registered voters who live north of the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) may vote at the Baker School. Those who live south of the LIRR may vote at the South High School. For details about the budget, capital reserve fund, absentee ballots, voter registration, and voting, please call (516) 441-4020.