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Great Neck school district cuts $17.56M, tries again on bond-issue vote

The Great Neck Adult Learning Center at 105

The Great Neck Adult Learning Center at 105 Clover Drive is shown on Thursday, May 11, 2017. Credit: Chuck Fadely

Spending proposals rarely fail in the Great Neck school district. In 1975, the budget was rejected, with residents at the time saying it contained too many cuts to educational services.

So the defeat in February of an $85.9 million bond issue for infrastructure improvements and repairs district-wide shocked longtime Great Neck school administrators and halted plans to build a new early childhood center. The Feb. 14 vote had 1,677 rejecting the bond issue to 1,564 supporting it.

District officials, who acknowledged their proposal had polarized the community, are trying again after cutting $17.56 million. The vote on a revised $68.3 million bond issue is scheduled Tuesday, when voters across Long Island go to the polls to vote on budgets, school board candidates and other ballot propositions.

“I think it was important for the community to know that we heard you,” Great Neck Superintendent Teresa Prendergast said. “We’re paying attention to the fact that cost of living on Long Island is not inexpensive.”

The defeat also meant shelving a long-held plan for an early childhood education center, transforming the Clover Drive facility into space for prekindergarten and kindergarten. The district would have constructed a building nearby for administrative offices, including some formerly in the Clover Drive facility, at a cost of $9.8 million.

“I’m very disappointed. It’s something that I had championed and been in favor of for years,” said Barbara Berkowitz, president of the school board. “The next day, it was a shock, I think, that it hadn’t been passed, because Great Neck has always been very proud of its schools and of its community support.”

The defeat also surprised local civic leaders.

“I’ve never seen any opposition as it relates to the bond and budget vote until this election,” said Nathan Fong, co-president of the Great Neck Chinese Association.

District officials have reached out to community groups in an effort to secure the bond’s passage and have published pamphlets in Farsi, Korean, simplified and traditional Chinese and Spanish. That is reflective of the population of Iranians who settled there after the 1979 Iranian Revolution and a growing number of Asian-Americans during the past decade.

The district has seen change in recent years in the number of students who attend private schools, for whom it covers transportation costs. That population has increased by nearly 44 percent since 2012, when the district transported 1,241 students. In the 2017-18 school year, the district projects it will provide transportation for 1,783 students to private schools.

School and community leaders hope any raw feelings left by the February vote will subside.

“I think that there’s always a concern anytime you see a large group of people coming out to go ahead and vote ‘no’ on anything,” Berkowitz said. “But I don’t think that there’s a real divide in this community.”

Great Neck Mayor Pedram Bral said the bond-issue vote “created some animosities in the community.”

“I think we should not go and say people who are going to public schools are selfish, people who are going to private schools don’t understand the needs,” Bral said.

Bob Unger, 63, an attorney whose children are graduates of district schools, said, “I think the costs are just becoming progressive, and people are moving out.”

Prendergast, in her second year as Great Neck superintendent, noted that district officials had carefully costed out the first proposal. “We could have had far more projects,” she said.

Debbie Volk, a parent of two students in the district and one who graduated from Great Neck South High School, pointed to the district’s achievements in “spearheading best practices in education.”

“Would it be nice to be able to have Great Neck be the public school district of the future?” she said. “You know, that would be great to be spearheading that movement. But it’s not going to happen this time around.”

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