West Hempstead, the only school district out of 124 on Long Island to lose a budget vote last month, twice has lowered its property-tax projections as it prepares for a revote on Tuesday.
The district's original plan would have boosted property-tax collections 2.14%. That was cut to 1.64% and then to 1.5% in recent weeks, as school officials tried to win back skeptical voters.
West Hempstead has faced a barrage of criticism from some residents, along with an anonymous flyer campaign, over the size of its cash reserves and other financial issues. The original proposed property tax hike also received scrutiny amid steadily declining enrollment.
Among those going to the polls are parents who send an unusually large proportion of children, 44%, to private schools. Nassau County's average is 12%.
Voting is scheduled from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the gym of West Hempstead Middle School, 450 Nassau Blvd.
Local school officials hope their recent concessions will be enough to gain adoption of a revised $71,135,474 budget, though doubts remain. If approved, the 1.5% tax hike would be slightly lower than Nassau County's average.
Patricia Greaves, who steps down from the school board at the end of this month, told a local audience Tuesday night that she would not want to witness another budget rejection during her final days on the board.
A second "no" vote would force West Hempstead to freeze taxes and reduce spending by $717,113. District officials have announced that, in case of another defeat, they would consider larger class sizes, reductions in sports and elective courses, and consolidation of bus routes.
"We invest in our homes. We invest in our families," Greaves said. "I would hate to see us not to invest in our schools."
Still, questions have kept coming from undecided residents.
Earlier this month, one resident, David Lazar, 46, suggested at a board meeting that West Hempstead might want to consider closing a school in order to save money amid enrollment losses. Lazar's point was that K-12 enrollment had declined in recent years — by 25% in the last decade alone, according to state figures — while expenditures steadily rose.
"If we have less than 2,000 students, do we need all five buildings?" asked Lazar, a father of three who runs a startup e-commerce firm. His children have attended schools inside and outside the district.
Joel Press, the district's assistant superintendent for business and operations, replied that the issue had not been discussed recently. "I know our elementary schools are packed," he added.
Later, Lazar told Newsday that he would probably vote "yes" when West Hempstead holds its revote. He added that he had voted "no" on the original budget as a protest against what he considered inadequate financial planning, but now felt a voter-approved plan should be ready for the 2022-23 school year.
"I want to make sure things for students are in place," Lazar said.
Some still oppose the budget.
"It really doesn't make sense, given their declining enrollment and extensive reserves," said Moshe Hill, 36, the father of three children, all attending private schools. "And the second budget doesn't do much to change that, so I'm going to vote against it again."
Growing cash reserves are a much-debated issue in West Hempstead, as in many other districts across the Nassau-Suffolk region. Several West Hempstead residents told Newsday they found flyers in their mailboxes several days before the May 17 vote — the handbills referred to reserves not designated for specific purposes as "nonessential."
Flyers were issued by a group calling itself "Concerned Citizens of West Hempstead," with no names included.
Reserve funds in West Hempstead total more than $17.5 million — equivalent to about 25% of the district's proposed budget — according to state and district records. That's about average for Nassau County.
At a school board meeting on June 7, Press, the assistant superintendent for business and operations, presented a 13-page outline of West Hempstead's reserves, along with additional information on other budget issues. The outline noted that most district reserves were set aside for specific purposes, such as unemployment and retirement benefits, with slightly more than $3 million in "unrestricted" money available to be spent at the district's discretion.
Press contended that spending down unrestricted reserves, sometimes known as rainy day funds, would be "irresponsible."
"If you don't replenish the savings account, eventually there will be nothing left," he said.
Many school supporters agreed.
"If a boiler should break, if a roof should leak, what do you do?" said Barbara Keilty, 71, a retired elementary teacher and former union leader in the district. "You have to have that reserve."
West Hempstead's original $71.39 million proposal went down by a vote of 1,103-734, even as the 123 other district budgets Islandwide won approval, many by lopsided majorities.
Another factor setting West Hempstead apart is private school attendance. A district board trustee, Gavi Hoffman, whose term is about to expire, observed in a podcast interview last year that the number of private school students living in the district comes close to the number of public school students.
Figures compiled by the state Education Department show that 1,693 students attended grades K-12 in West Hempstead's public system in 2020-21, while 1,354 students living in the district attended private schools.
Karen Brohm, the board president, has cited public "misunderstanding" of district finances as a problem and has urged school supporters to defend the system.
"Please speak out," Brohm said.
With Arielle Martinez
WHAT TO KNOW
- West Hempstead was the only district of 124 on Long Island that lost a budget vote on May 17. The original $71.39 million proposal went down by a vote of 1,103-734.
- A revote is scheduled for Tuesday on a reduced budget carrying a 1.5% tax hike as opposed to a 2.14% increase originally projected.
- Residents said financial issues seemed to predominate in voters' minds. An anonymous flyer campaign criticized the district over the size of its cash reserves. School officials note that most district reserves were set aside for specific purposes.