The Great Neck Board of Education held an informal public budget hearing in North Middle School on April 4. I arrived at the meeting early, holding 395 signatures in my hand, which I planned to submit to the school board during open time.
Three days ago, parents of incoming Parkville students as well as students from pre-K to grade 5 received an email from their schools. In the email, schools told parents that the district was no longer able to provide the “courtesy” Early Drop-Off, which starts at 7:45 a.m. Instead, parents should either drop their children off at regular school hours (for example, 9 a.m. at Parkville) or sign up for the morning SCOPE program, which charges $240 a month per student. Due to state regulations, however, pre-K parents could not sign up for the morning SCOPE program if they already signed up for the afternoon one.
The school email took many working parents by surprise. A few Chinese parents and I decided to appeal the district’s decision. We set up an online petition to collect signatures and emailed our children’s class lists and PTA networks. We contacted the Great Neck Chinese Association and the Great Neck Korean American Civic Association. We held a signature drive in front of E.M. Baker, Lakeville and Saddle Rock elementary schools during early drop-off hours on Monday morning.
We received overwhelming support from the community, but sitting at the meeting, I felt uneasy. During the course of collecting signatures and making phone calls, I heard arguments from the other side: “There are parents who do not use the program, and they do not want to pay for it.” “Even though it just costs $30,000, the money could be used to hire a teacher’s assistant.…”
I looked around the packed room for familiar faces. A few mothers sat in a row, holding up colorful printouts, which read “Don’t Tax Working Parents” and “SCOPE Won’t Help Parents with Occasional Needs.” Upon spotting them, I relaxed a little and smiled to myself, “they are definitely one of us.”
Before open time, a period when the public can address the board freely, Board President Barbara Berkowitz alerted the audience that she was going to do something very unusual at this meeting—she held off more than a dozen yellow cards, completed by the audience who wished to speak during open time, and let Superintendent Dr. Teresa Prendergast make an announcement first.
Dr. Prendergast opened her speech by comparing her job duties to that of a CEO, especially when it came to fiscal responsibilities. She acknowledged that the increase from State Aid is now confirmed to be $969,000, an increase of $591,000 from the projection, as pointed out earlier by Sheila Henchy, president of GNTA (Great Neck Teachers Association). However, $858,000 of the increase is GEA money that was owed to the district. GEA, or Gap Elimination Adjustment, is the money the New York State government took from school districts to close the state’s deficit in previous years.
Dr. Prendergast warned that $360,000 of the increase was not expected to reoccur but they did allow schools to restore some of the programs that were proposed to be cut this year. On her recommended “restore list,” there were early-morning programs, ELA, student-index allocation and technology initiatives. Moreover, she planned to put an additional $20,000 into the Early Drop-Off program to enhance its security.
The audience roared with victory at this announcement. I recognized then that there must have been more than 30 parents who attended the meeting just for the Early Drop-Off program. President Berkowitz’s unusual arrangement proved to be wise, because after Dr. Prendergast’s speech, most of the people who filled out the yellow cards no longer wished to speak—some of them had even left by the time their names were called.
I found that most of my arguments, prepared for saving Early Drop-Off, were irrelevant at that point, but I decided to submit the 395 signatures to the board and urged them to make the program permanent.
Daisy Xia and a few parents spoke about the deficiencies of the SCOPE program. Xia suggested that our schools bring in multiple after-school program providers, which would not only increase competition and quality, but could also potentially generate profits for the schools.
Sabine Margolis presented 175 signatures from another online petition, “Parents in favor of maintaining Early Drop-Off,” which Debra Kaufman started in late March.
Two gentlemen separately proposed closing the school’s budget deficit by increasing our taxes. One suggested that he wouldn’t mind paying an extra couple of hundred dollars per year so we did not have to cut any more programs. He was convinced that many would agree with him because “Great Neck is such a premier school district in the entire state of New York.”
I was once told that the school board meetings become most crowded when the school district faces steep budget deficits. I had expected heated discussions and even bickering at such meetings, but none of that happened at this meeting or any previous budget meetings I attended.
I realized that I made a mistake earlier by trying to look for “my people,” as there had never been “us” versus “them.” People came to the school board meetings to offer their heartfelt suggestions. The board heeded parents’ petitions and adjusted its plan swiftly when they identified the community’s priorities. What has always connected us is our genuine eagerness to build better schools for our children and the pride we have for our Great Neck schools. It is this pride that enabled us to overcome difficulties, resolve our disagreements and find the middle ground time and time again in the past. And next time, I am convinced, it will be no different.
The next school board meeting, the Official Budget Hearing and Adoption of the Proposed 2016–17 School Budget, will be held at North Middle School on Tuesday, April 19, at 7:30 p.m.
At the conclusion of the April 4 board meeting, Berkowitz announced that at the April 19 meeting, the results of the School Board Community Survey would be presented. However, the analysis of the School Board Community Survey, which was conducted last year, will instead be presented at the Monday, May 9, board of education meeting at South Middle School. The meeting will start with a student recognition at 7:30 p.m., followed by the remainder of the board meeting, beginning at about 8:15 p.m. For more information on the school budget, visit www.greatneck.k12.ny.us/gnps/pages/budget.html.
To read the letter 8-year-old Joy read to the board, click here.
To read about the students’ plea for air conditioning, click here.