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Dobie: What to make of last week's school bond votes?

Rendering of the new Sewanhaka Central High School.

Rendering of the new Sewanhaka Central High School. Credit: Handout

What to make of the results from this past week of school bond votes in Nassau County? Two were approved, one rejected. It’s tempting to note simply that the biggest one went down and leave it at that, but that might not be the whole story.

The scorecard:

  • Sewanhaka: Voters rejected a $99.5 million bond referendum, 53-47 percent.
  • Bellmore-Merrick: Voters approved a $49.9 million referendum, 56-44 percent.
  • North Shore: Voters approved a $19.6 million referendum, 57-43 percent.

All three bonds focused primarily on infrastructure repairs and replacement. Given the state of many aging Long Island schools built in the 1950s, more such referendums figure to be in the offing. So what do these three results tell us?

In North Shore, supporters overcame active opposition from a local property owners’ group that said the bond to cover replacement windows, floors and roofs, repairs to electrical systems, and security upgrades included too many items. But the district was able to counter-argue that passage would not change taxes because the bond would replace others that were expiring.

Bellmore-Merrick’s bond did have tax implications: $104 per year for 15 years for the average homeowner. Again, opposition centered on the bond’s alleged extravagance. An easy target was the portion that would pay for five new artificial turf fields. All of which helped pique interest in the referendum: More people came out to vote in December in the middle of the holiday season than voted in the budget and school board election in May. The bond passed easily.

And yet, a very similar — if larger — bond in Sewanhaka was dealt a solid defeat. It, too, sought to fund major improvements to school infrastructure and also included five new artificial turf fields. The tax implications were larger: an additional $144 per year for 15-to-20 years for the average homeowner. District officials knew of no organized opposition and expected the proposal to pass. They’re still analyzing results to figure out what happened.

It might just be that size matters. But it also might have something to do with district demographics, the part that measures residents’ wealth. Bellmore-Merrick and North Shore are wealthier communities. The percentage of students in those districts that get free or reduced lunches are 4 and 5 percent, respectively. In Sewanhaka, it’s 18 percent. In other words, the district was asking for a bigger monthly payment from a community less able to afford it.

That’s worth remembering as Sewanhaka officials regroup and consider what comes next. The buildings are still aging and still in need of repair. The district still needs money to fix them. Officials need to either come up with a more affordable proposal or sell the old one better.

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