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      More than 20 board of education members representing ten school districts gathered in Elmont on March 12 at a School Finance Summit to explore challenges to funding public education and the need to lessen the burden on local taxpayers. The grassroots effort, initiated by the Elmont Board of Education under the leadership of President Aubrey Phillips and endorsed by the school boards in attendance, was intended to work in support of efforts being made by other Nassau County school boards, Nassau BOCES, and organizations such as REFIT (Reform Educational Financing Inequities Today).

      Image“School funding is unambiguously the most pressing matter facing homeowners in Nassau County,” said Phillips in his welcoming remarks, and he expressed the concerns of school boards about the impact school funding has on senior citizens and new homeowners. “Today,” he added, “we demonstrate our commitment to our community’s need for property tax relief.” The districts represented at the Summit included East Rockaway, Valley Stream 13, Valley Stream Central High School, North Shore, Freeport, Oceanside, New Hyde Park and Franklin Square in Nassau Country, and Wyandanch in Suffolk County.

      “We have to be proactive and need to find an alternate way to fund our schools,” urged Franklin Square trustee Jean Fichtl. “We cannot continue to exist with crumbs from the Governor’s table. We in Nassau receive 16% funding from the state, while New York City receives 43%.”

      The board members set out to discuss several common issues: the impact of rising local taxes on the sustainability of public education, a state aid formula that is difficult to explain and understand, and a stalled state budget process. High on the list of concerns was the damage to community trust experienced by districts and school boards brought about by the recent scandals in the Roslyn and William Floyd school districts. Phillips commented, “As boards of education, we are taking steps to regain that trust.”

      ImageThe participants broke into three groups to explore the issues. Robert Geras, director of business and facilities in the Elmont Schools, led discussion on how local government can assist schools in explaining how property taxes are determined. His group suggested that districts calculate costs for the average household; change the way tax bills are documented with better explanations of costs; reach out to new residents to explain how budgets are formulated; and involve people who do not have children in the schools through innovative programs.

      ImageGroup two, led by Tom Galante, Elmont’s financial consultant, focused on examining whether there were better ways to fund schools other than solely through property taxes. His group considered investigating private revenue sources; improving lobbying efforts; increasing targeted taxes, such as those on cigarettes or alcohol, to offset property taxes; taxing senior citizens differently; and making necessary changes in school aid.

      ImageAl Chase, deputy superintendent of Valley Stream Central High School District, led a discussion of how school boards can promote changes in school funding. The participants suggested reworking tax bills; increasing involvement in statewide groups; distributing information to communities in October about district progress in developing the following year’s budget; and increasing visibility of board of education members in their districts.

      Joining the board trustees and Elmont administrators at Dutch Broadway School were Nassau County Comptroller Howard Weitzman and New York State Assemblyman Tom Alfano. The Assemblyman thanked the board members for their service, saying, “You work so hard to do the best you can with the limited resources you have.” He reported that there is a movement in Albany to pass a state budget on time this year, as well as an effort to restore Comprehensive Operating Aid through a “one-time restoration payment” funded by revenue growth.

      Similarly concerned with state funding inequities, Comptroller Weitzman outlined his office’s investigation, which found that state aid comprises a much smaller percentage of school budgets in Nassau districts than in those of neighboring suburban areas and the city.

      Weitzman said two of the factors that determine state aid are students in need and wealth, both property and income. He pointed out that the misrepresentation of “wealth” hurts county residents, and many of “our seniors are paying taxes based on the premise that they can afford to buy their own houses today.”

      Assemblyman Alfano agreed. “Every day I see families working two or three jobs to make ends meet. I see seniors who debate whether to sell their homes or stay. These are our constituents,” he said. “Let me tell you what we have to do. The State has to restore Comprehensive Operating Aid. The State needs to stop mandating programs to schools without the funding to back them up. And the State needs to recognize regional costs regarding education.

      “I don’t need to tell you that the cost of educating a child in Plattsburgh is a lot different than in Franklin Square, Floral Park, Elmont or Glen Cove,” Alfano continued, adding that perhaps it is time for a constitutional convention in New York State to address school finance issues. The Assemblyman also reported that he has introduced a bill, with Assemblymen Tom DiNapoli and Harvey Weisenberg, which would slow the tax shift that has been taking place in recent years from commercial properties to residential properties. He credited the support of board members and administrators in the room, including Elmont Superintendent Dr. Maria Palandra, for helping to make the proposed bill a reality.

      Ronald Ellerbe, Freeport Board of Education trustee and president of REFIT, reported on his organization’s lobbying efforts and Meredith Brosnan, president of the Nassau Association of School Business Officials, discussed how school districts can strengthen communication and trust with their communities.

      The board of education members generally agreed to have follow-up meetings to develop a more targeted approach to continuing the work of the Summit at local, county and statewide levels.

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      Captions: School Board members from ten Nassau County school districts attend a School Finance Summit in Elmont, where they discuss the challenges to funding public education and holding the line on local taxes. Pictured with the trustees are Nassau County Comptroller Howard Weitzman (center, left) and New York State Assemblyman Tom Alfano (center, right).