By Haley Raphael
When the 2016-17 Preliminary Budget for the Great Neck Public Schools was released on Feb. 29, many South High students and staff members were astonished by the proposed budget cuts. Although the district had already enacted measures to reduce the budget in past years, the 2016-17 school year will likely include cuts that affect South’s classrooms more than they ever have before.
The extensive expected cuts are due to the initial five million dollar difference between the revenue that the district expected to receive through property taxes and other revenue sources and what the district projected to spend in 2016-17. When the budget-making process for the next academic year started last October, Mr. John Powell, Assistant Superintendent for Business, said that administration expected to have $221,932,356 between property taxes, state funds, and all other revenues not including reserves. This calculation was based on an expected 1.25 percent increase of property taxes; however, in January, it was discovered that the property tax cap would limit the property tax increase to 0.17 percent. Because of this, the district’s revenue for the 2016-17 school year will be $216,927,365—five million dollars less than anticipated.
Instead of having to make five million dollars in cuts for the 2016-17 school year, the district chose to make three million in budget reductions and use two million dollars of the district’s $50 million fund balance, which was acquired through the surpluses of the recent budgets. According to Mr. Powell, the entirety of the five million dollar deficit is not being covered by funds from this reserve because he wanted to “slow down expenditures” in order to be fiscally responsible. Because each successive year’s budget is significantly influenced by the previous one, he said that it is imperative for the district to do this in order to ensure that there will not be a large deficit in next year’s budget. He stressed that using money from the fund balance is only a “short-term solution.” Money from that fund has already been allocated to cover $19 million in capital improvement projects for the school buildings next year—provided that the community approves the expenditure of those funds. It is critical that this fund does not get depleted because that money is meant to finance any unforeseeable emergencies—like the damages the district incurred from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
By monitoring the consumer price index for the New York area, released monthly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Mr. Powell said that he knew the tax cap was going to be low for the 2016-17 school year, but he did not predict that it was going to be this low. In order to decrease the extent of the cuts for the 2016-17 school year, Mr. Powell said that the district should have started making budget reductions earlier and should not have hired as many new staff members as it did.
The district’s philosophy in making these budgetary decisions is “to try to make cuts as far away from the classroom as possible.” For this reason, the girls’ bathroom matron position in the secondary schools throughout the district is being eliminated.
Other changes will include less flexibility in scheduling because of an anticipated increase in class size. The Preliminary Budget calls for South High to reduce its staff based on a system that places each full-time teacher at a value of one. In this system, full-time teachers are contractually obligated to teach five full-year classes, each of which are assigned a value of 0.2. Due to the budget cuts, South High will be reducing its staff by 3.45. While this could potentially lead to teachers losing their positions, all it means definitively is that South High will need to have approximately 17 fewer classes next year.
According to Assistant Vice Principal Mr. John Duggan, “all teachers are going to keep their jobs, but some may be moved to another building in order to accommodate the changing needs of the district, or some may work part-time.” He stressed that these changes were inevitable: “Great Neck South would have experienced staffing cuts this year—regardless of the budget—because of the decreased enrollment.” It is projected that there will be 1178 students at South next year whereas there are 1206 students enrolled this year.
Next year’s projected decreased enrollment is part of a larger trend. Since the 2009-10 school year, South High’s enrollment has been decreasing. The peak enrollment, 1380 students, occurred during the 2009-10 school year. During that year, most of the other school districts on Long Island were cutting expenditures through measures such as excessing teachers; however, because the enrollment in Great Neck was so high, the Great Neck School District increased its expenditures and its number of teachers.
In addition to reducing the total number of classes next year, the building budget for South High was expected to decrease by about $58,000, according to Mr. Duggan; however, because of increased state aid, it was announced in early April that this money was going to be given back to the school.
Mr. Duggan said that the allocation of funds is often a “battle” between the primary administrators who run the district and the secondary administrators who run the individual schools. He said that the primary administrators sometimes think that schools need one thing when, in reality, it would be more helpful to use those funds for other things. Mr. Duggan cited the example of the district spending $75,000 to replace the doors of South High when that money could have been used to buy new, updated textbooks for students.
On May 17, all residents of the Great Neck School District over the age of 18 can register and vote either to approve or reject the 2016-17 Preliminary Working Budget. Voting will take place from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. at E.M. Baker School and South High School.