Proposed 2011-12 School Budget

By Ronna Telsey

On Tuesday, May 17, from 7 a.m.-10 p.m., at the E. M. Baker Elementary School and the William A. Shine-South High School, qualified residents of the school district will be asked to vote on the:

• 2011-12 School District Budget (Proposition No. 1)

• 2011-12 Public Library Budget (Proposition No. 2)

• Two Board of Education Seats (incumbents Lawrence Gross and Susan Miner-Healy are running unopposed).

 

2011-12 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 $193,324,596 for the 2011-12 school year. The increase over last year's budget is 1.99 percent--this budget-to-budget increase is the lowest in 15 years. The increase in the amount to be raised by real property tax is 1.99 percent.

Almost all of the increase is for mandated items not controlled by the school district. These include countless Federal and State mandates, Social Security, pension funds, unemployment insurance, workers' compensation, the MTA commuter transportation tax imposed by New York State last year, health insurance, and Medicare reimbursements.

Board of Education President Barbara Berkowitz said, "Our School Board is responsible for establishing a budget that provides the best education possible and, at the same time, is responsive to the pressures on all segments of our community. These are difficult days, never experienced in many of our lifetimes. Although painful, we have found ways to cut more than $4.5 million without the loss of quality and services to children. The cuts we made allow us to preserve the continuity of the programs we cherish. We have allocated almost three quarters of every dollar for instruction, which is always our priority. We have worked hard to guarantee that the budget is not frivolous. We have tremendous concern about the impact of taxes on our residents and we are grateful for their continued support of public education in our community."

Board Trustee Donald Ashkenase said, "The State is advocating a tax cap of 2 percent for the 2012-13 school year, which we hope will be paired with mandate relief. A tax cap without mandate relief would present a real challenge for 2012-13. The impending tax cap has impacted our budget thinking for 2011-12. We will be operating as if a 2 percent tax cap is already in effect."

Dr. Thomas Dolan, superintendent of schools, said, "We reduced the amount of the operating budget that contributes to the undesignated fund balance and budgeted hard numbers to compensate for the increases in mandated items. Clearly, this is something we can only do once. Mandate relief is the only safety valve that remains, other than sacrificing programs, which we hope not to do."

Dr. Dolan continued, "On the revenue side, there is a considerable, six-figure loss in this budget. Primarily, these losses are in State aid and legislative grants. However, despite our cuts and revenue losses, we are committed to maintaining small class size and the breadth of course offerings and activities, including research programs, athletics, robotics, opera, DECA, and staff development, to name a few. Teaching positions were reduced this year due to attrition; next year, we have maintained all teaching positions. These are all part of a budget that meets the needs of the educational community and yet is fiscally responsive to those not directly connected to our pre-K through high school program."

Major reductions in the proposed budget include: (1) elimination of contingency funds, which are built into many codes for unbudgeted expenditures that cannot be anticipated or are unknown at the time the budget is finalized, and (2) the retirement of three long-time administrators and 17 teachers, who will be replaced by those who command lower salaries. School district administrators have initiated a voluntary wage freeze for the second year in a row. Mr. Ashkenase said, "We admire the administrators for their sensitive approach, as any raise has to be offset by reductions."

Board Trustee Lawrence Gross said, "We support small class size, our teaching staff, and our instructional program. This is why people want to move here."

Trustee Susan Miner-Healy added, "We are ensuring that our diverse district continues to provide a safe and nurturing environment where each and every child is helped to reach his or her fullest potential."

Last year, major reductions in the budget totaled more than $5 million. These included eliminating a central administrative position and that of environmental-safety consultant, reduction of 10.40 elementary and 11.46 secondary teachers due to attrition, reduction of hourly teachers, teaching assistants, paraprofessional monitors, clerical staff members, coaches, and cleaners, reduction of elementary before school and academic enrichment programs, reduction of elementary and secondary intramurals, and reduction of technology projects. Also, user fees for K-12 summer programs and the Adult Program were increased.

 

County Establishes Actual Tax Rates

In Nassau County, boards of education are not legally permitted to set actual tax rates and assessments of property. This is done by the County, based on its assessed valuation of property. 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 eliminate the shift or to cap the increases caused by the shift to 1 percent (rather than the 5 percent allowable by law).

 

While there is no meaningful way to predict what impact the tax-rate increase will have on an individual's property tax, our Class I (homeowner) school tax rate continues to be the second lowest of the 62 school taxing districts in Nassau County.

 

Independent Audits

An annual, external, independent 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, the district's independent auditor, consistently presents extremely favorable reports on the management of finances, emphasizing a strong financial position, including wise investments and an excellent control system of checks, balances, and procedures supported by Board of Education policies. Also, a required internal audit of risk assessments was performed by the firm of Nawrocki Smith, LLP. The district again received satisfactory reports.

Board Vice President Fran Langsner said, "Over the years, all of our external and internal audits have validated the extreme care our business department takes in making sure our tax dollars are spent wisely. Our books are always open for oversight by the taxpayers."

 

Government-Mandated Services

The school district is required to provide a substantial number of mandated services imposed by the Federal, State, and County governments, without sufficient aid to meet their costs. As a result, significant associated costs must be borne by the district.

Our State aid has been on the decline for 21 years, spiraling downward from 11 percent of our budget to a projected low of less than 3.5 percent for next year.

The district is mandated by State law to provide transportation, textbooks, and health and other services to about 1,500 students who reside here but attend over 80 private, parochial, and special-education schools. Transportation, alone, is budgeted at a cost of about $5,795,000 for these students. Over the years, State aid to the district for transportation has plummeted from 90 percent of the total cost to about 4.5 percent. Ms. Langsner said, "Even though it may go unused, we are required by law to provide a seat for every child who is eligible for busing. As a result, buses are not filled to capacity. Legislative relief for transportation doesn't seem to be happening soon."

 

Revenue & Savings

More than $10 million in revenue other than property taxes is anticipated in 2011-12 from various sources, including tuition from nonresident students, Adult Program 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.

The Great Neck school district participates in a number of successful, cost-saving, cooperative ventures with neighboring districts and with Nassau BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services), particularly in the areas of insurance, transportation, purchasing, and special education.

Cost-saving efforts continue in many areas related to energy efficiency, technology upgrades, and communications. A fiber-optic Wide Area Network (WAN) connects 14 buildings, enabling the district to centralize information systems and consolidate voice, data, and video services in a cost-effective manner. The WAN facilitates a modern phone system at a significant annual savings for phone service. The WAN also supports two important parent-communication systems: ParentLink and Infinite Campus Parent Portal. The WAN will also support new video surveillance systems to monitor parking lots and entrances to our buildings for improved security.

Additionally, the school district reaps annual savings of 40 percent for all Internet, pager, local, long distance, and cellular phone service through participation in the Federal E-Rate program. Since 1996, when E-Rate was enacted, the district has received over $1.9 million in reimbursements.

Two years ago, a cost-effective, major energy-enhancing project replaced many district boilers (some 60 years old), added solar-electricity panels on our four large secondary schools, and renovated and improved all heating-system controls. This was accomplished entirely from energy savings, with a guarantee of no additional net costs for the improvements.

 

For More Information

Copies of the 2011-12 Proposed Budget are available at the Phipps Administration Building, 345 Lakeville Road. Reference copies can be found in the schools and public libraries. It is also on the district Web site: greatneck.k12.ny.us. For more information about the School Budget, voter registration, absentee ballots, and voting, please call 441-4020.