When I was younger I used to believe, like most Americans, that voting is a civic duty. I used to believe that abstaining from voting undermined all of the ideals that this country stands for and fought for. As I have watched the steady devolution of political discourse into an exercise of personal attacks, name-calling and alternative facts, I no longer believe that all citizens should vote. I believe all voters have a responsibility to investigate the issues, put aside their personal bias and measure fact vs. opinion. Any voter who has not put in the necessary effort to understand all of the facts should not bother to vote. An uninformed vote is worse than no vote at all.
Two weeks ago, Ms. Wendy S. Roth published a lengthy response (“Vote No on May 16,” April 12) to a letter written by former district teacher Martha (Kindergarten) Cohen (“GN School Bond Defeat,” March 29), while disparaging the larger Great Neck school district. Despite the length and fervor of Ms. Roth’s screed, I am unable to identify a single accurate, verifiable fact in her entire letter.
Ms. Roth begins her letter with a false assertion that Great Neck’s school taxes are exorbitant for families and many have lost their homes to “the unparalleled nationwide taxes.” This is completely untrue. In fact, of Nassau County’s 63 school districts, Great Neck’s assessment rate is number 60. There are only three districts in Nassau with a lower assessment rate. This can be confirmed at Nassau County’s Dept. of Assessment School Tax Estimator on the Nassau County Department of Assessment website.
Ms. Roth then proceeds to libel a Great Neck hero, Board of Education President Barbara Berkowitz, by passing along a rumor about Ms. Berkowitz. Did Ms. Roth personally speak to Ms. Berkowitz? Does she have actual evidence that Ms. Berkowitz believes those with financial difficulties should move out of town? Perhaps Ms. Roth, who seems so infatuated with Martha Cohen’s ethics, should have acted ethically herself by seeking confirmation of the rumor before publicly attacking Ms. Berkowitz.
Perhaps most puzzling, Ms. Roth devotes 300 words to her false assertion that Martha Cohen’s letter supporting the school bond was illegal and/or unethical. This assertion is so laughable it barely dignifies a response. Ms. Roth is angry that Ms. Cohen presumably receives a school pension based on her years of service as a teacher. Ms. Roth feels that pension expenses are too high. That may or may not be true, but the school bond and school budget votes do not affect school district pensions at all. Teacher pension benefits are set at the state level by the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System (NYSTRS). Anybody who is unhappy about the pension benefits of New York State teachers should do the proper research on how to initiate change at the state level. It’s much more difficult than writing an angry falsehood-filled letter to the local paper. Voting No to the school budget will not impact district salaries or pensions one bit. This is simply not how it works. Do your research. Understand what happens when New York State school districts vote No. Anybody who thinks a No vote will magically reduce teacher salaries and/or pensions is woefully uninformed.
It is only the students who will be impacted through a state-mandated austerity budget: loss of after-school sports and clubs, removal of arts programs, reductions in transportation, guidance, language instruction and textbooks. These are the kinds of measures that tell the world that the precious demographic mosaic of Great Neck, bonded together to provide our children the best public school education possible, has cracked. These are the kinds of measures that sharply decrease property values.
According to Ms. Roth, “paying almost 80 percent school tax in Great Neck takes its toll and has a negative impact on the property value.” This 80 percent number, like most of Ms. Roth’s alternative facts, has no meaning or explanation. However, according to Zillow (www.zillow.com), Great Neck’s property values are roaring ahead. From a low of $325 per square foot in February of 2012, Great Neck homes jumped to $523 per square foot in February 2017. This represents a 61 percent increase in five years, which is magnificent. Certainly not a vote of no confidence in our schools. This stands in stark contrast to Ms. Roth’s position on negative property values.
Ms. Roth continues her letter with more of the same: false and unsubstantiated attacks regarding the supposed poor quality of the Great Neck School District, false and unsubstantiated claims about the size of student enrollment and additional libel against all current and former employees who “do not care about us, the taxpayers and their children. You only care about your salary, benefits and pension. The more, the better for you.” This quote puts all of Ms. Roth’s comments into perspective. Ms. Roth has the chutzpah to launch yet another baseless attack without a shred of truth to back it up. What percentage of the 190 elementary school teachers has Ms. Roth met? How many of the 318 secondary school teachers? How many of the retirees? According to Ms. Roth, none of these current and former district staff members care about our children. They only care about money. Anybody who has had any experience at all with our world-class staff understands the credibility Ms. Roth offers.
Ms. Roth’s letter is emblematic of the illness that is slowly destroying our nation’s ability to engage in thoughtful, reasonable political conversation. The Great Neck I have always known is notable for its passion towards its schools. It is known for its wonderful demographic diversity, the rare example where populations of different age, race and religion are united in awe of the global reputation we have created for our unparalleled public school district. The Great Neck I have always known is a place to engage in fierce debate without lowering the conversation to personal attacks and name-calling.
On Tuesday May 16, you, the engaged citizen, will be asked to vote on the future of our school district. Seek out the actual facts and ask the questions that you feel need answers. Don’t rely on angry, unverified sources of information, such as Ms. Roth’s letter. Get informed. If you don’t know the facts, don’t vote. An uninformed vote is worse than no vote at all.