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Long IslandEducation

Security, technology are fixtures in many 2018-19 LI school budgets

“This year, Parkland changed everything,” says Plainview-Old Bethpage Superintendent Lorna Lewis, referring to the mass shooting in Florida.

Sixth-graders Torre Cintorino, left, and Liam McGuire work

Sixth-graders Torre Cintorino, left, and Liam McGuire work with their Chromebook computers during a language arts class at Albert G. Prodell Middle School in Shoreham on May 2, 2018. Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Long Island voters will weigh in Tuesday on nearly $13 billion in proposed spending for the 2018-19 academic year that affects about 440,000 public school students, in an election season with a focus on security spurred by the February mass shooting in Parkland, Florida.

School board races feature 207 candidates running for contested seats in 56 of the 124 districts across Nassau and Suffolk counties — including the Hempstead system, where results could have state-level repercussions.

Islandwide, proposed budgets show an average 2.85 percent increase for the coming academic year, to $12.8 billion, while tax collections would grow 2.37 percent, to $8.7 billion. State aid pays for most costs not covered by local property taxes.

The increases under these spending plans, though at their highest point for the region in five years, remain tightly regulated by the state’s cap restrictions on local taxation. School taxes account for more than 60 percent of homeowners’ assessment bills in a region where such bills consistently rank among the nation’s highest.

Greenport is the only district in the two-county region — and among a small number of systems statewide — where school officials are seeking to override the cap limit. In North Bellmore, two community groups have petitioned for expanded student busing that would cause taxes to exceed that system’s cap.

Districts that override their tax-cap limit must garner 60 percent approval of budgets by those voting, rather than a simple majority.

Local school administrators said much of the proposed extra spending is for security guards and other safety measures demanded by anxious parents following the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, where 17 students and staff members were killed and an equal number were wounded.

“This year, Parkland changed everything, and most of our districts increased their budgets to address security,” said Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Plainview-Old Bethpage schools and president-elect of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. “It’s a new world we’re living in.”

Newsday’s annual survey of budgets and board races found 37 districts where the “security” buzzword showed up in spending plans, and 21 districts where security issues were raised by board candidates who are running in contested races.

Other findings from Newsday’s review:

  • Districts split on whether to focus on providing tax relief to residents, as opposed to restoring and expanding student programs and services. Sixty-three systems opted to boost taxation by the maximum allowed under caps, while 58 districts kept below their cap limits.
  • Security upgrades will include building renovations, as well as hiring more guards. Plainview-Old Bethpage plans to install reinforced vestibules in all school entrances, as well as surveillance cameras. Cold Spring Harbor, Bethpage and Patchogue-Medford are among other districts proposing installation of various building safeguards.
  • Technology and science remain priorities for many districts expanding programs next year. Shoreham-Wading River plans to provide Chromebook laptop computers to 300 middle schoolers next year. Great Neck will introduce new science textbooks, while Bridgehampton adds a program in Career and Technical Education.
  • Even as expenses rise, a number of districts are cutting back on jobs, student services or both. Eastport-South Manor has called for eliminating as many as 70 staff positions; Brentwood, for 11.5 staff reductions. Westbury has announced that nine retirees will not be replaced, and that class sizes are expected to rise at both elementary and secondary levels.

Critics of school spending levels acknowledge that student safety is a legitimate concern. But many are skeptical of suggestions by school representatives that security upgrades are the main reason costs are going up.

One of those critics, E.J. McMahon, research director of the Empire Center for Public Policy in Albany, noted that salaries of teachers, administrators and other school professionals constitute the biggest portion of education costs, and that security expenses represent a relatively small share.

“None of the things we’re talking about should lead to large increases in spending — these are fairly marginal items,” said McMahon, whose center is a source of conservative analysis and advocacy.

McMahon, in a phone interview, contended that recent increases in school spending are much higher than generally understood by the public, especially when considered on a per-pupil basis.

An Empire Center analysis of 2018-19 school budgets found that per-pupil costs would rise an average 3.8 percent on the Island and 3.2 percent statewide — well above an inflation rate of 2.3 percent. The explanation for the relatively high increase in per-pupil costs, as opposed to overall costs, lies in the fact that enrollments continue to decline in most districts.

“You know, I think that’s the missing element in discussion of school budgets — that enrollment is falling,” McMahon said.

While budget proposals have tended to dominate discussions at recent school board meetings, some community groups maintain that greater attention should be paid to candidates running for seats on those boards.

One high-profile contest between rival board slates is taking place in the Hempstead district, which faces intensive state scrutiny because of chronically low academic achievement, financial struggles and campus security concerns.

In that hotly contested race, board president Maribel Touré and vice president Gwendolyn Jackson, running as a team, will defend their seats. They’re vying against candidates Carmen Ayala and Patricia Spleen, who also are running as a team. Seats are elected at-large and terms are three years.

Touré and Jackson typically vote together, making up the five-member board minority. If they are ousted, the dynamics of the often divided board could shift, dependent upon Ayala’s and Spleen’s alignment with trustees David Gates, LaMont Johnson and Randy Stith, the board’s majority.

Jack Bierwirth, a veteran former school superintendent who is a state-designated special adviser to the district, expressed deep concern about the board’s ability to work together in his latest report to state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. Appointed in September by Elia to the position of “Distinguished Educator,” he was given a broad mandate to review and report back to Elia on the system’s operations, finances, curriculum and personnel.

The district’s governance remains one its “most significant” challenges, Bierwirth wrote in his most recent report to the commissioner, dated April 16. It is an “open question as to whether the members of the board have the capacity — or even the willingness — to work together on issues of substance for the benefit of the district,” he wrote.

The Education Department is providing a monitor for the district’s elections, which in the past have been challenged with allegations of voter fraud and election irregularities.

The district also has hired several inspectors, poll watchers and translators, according to a spokeswoman for the district.

In North Merrick, this year’s board race revolves largely around a local contract issue.

Over the past two years, the North Merrick Faculty Association, a local union representing about 130 teachers and other school employees, has supported three winning candidates for the district’s school board. The union’s contract covering salaries and other benefits expires at the end of June and is being renegotiated.

Two local parents, Mary Keene and Anna Higgins, formed a volunteer group, Concerned Residents of North Merrick, or CRONM, in an effort to draw public attention to this year’s board elections.

CRONM supports two board incumbents, Steven Enella and Todd Ransom. They are running for re-election against two challengers, Michelle Gordon and Vincent Lentini. The two challengers were endorsed by the teachers’ union local on May 5.

Keene and Higgins said that wins for Gordon and Lentini would create imbalance on the board, especially because Lentini is a teacher and faculty chairman in another district.

“The teachers have a strong union, and they should — there’s nothing wrong with unions,” said Higgins, who works as an attorney in private practice. “But the residents of North Merrick deserve representation of their own. That’s why Mary and I organized this movement, so people could know who the board candidates are, rather than just seeing names on a sign by the side of the road.”

Suzanne Winkel, president of the North Merrick Faculty Association, noted that union members have a constitutional right to endorse board candidates.

“There is no connection between our endorsement of candidates and any expectation of them helping our contract,” Winkel said. “We understand their role as board members, and we respect that. We understand they work for taxpayers.”

With Keshia Clukey

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