by Elizabeth (Liz) Berney, Esq.
It’s terrific to see how the Great Neck News has become a debating forum for significant issues facing our community. This paper should be congratulated for giving persons on all sides of these issues an opportunity to speak out!
In the April 8 and 15, 2011 issues of this paper, I wrote about the constitutionality and need for Gov. Cuomo’s proposed property tax cap, which was passed by the Republican-controlled state Senate but has been held up (and not acted upon) in the Democratic-controlled state Assembly. Very briefly, taxpayers need the certainty and affordability of a property tax cap, and the cap would stem the startling flight of homeowners from our state and community. Throughout this past decade, for every two people moving to New York, three leave. Moreover, the state legislature has a constitutional duty to prevent the abuse of taxpayers by local taxing authorities.
Letters on both sides of the fence have appeared in the Great Neck News regarding these articles. On the “con” side of the fence, in the Great Neck News (April 29, 2011), a letter writer expressed his concern that the proposed property tax cap would threaten schools and parks that make Great Neck great. The letter writer stated that he would gladly pay higher taxes to keep these facilities great. The letter-writer’s concerns are deserving of a response.
First, the proposed property tax cap would not decimate budgets for our local facilities, as last week’s letter-writer apparently feared. In fact, local budgets would likely continue to increase. There is a great deal of misunderstanding about what the proposed property tax cap entails. The proposed cap merely limits the rate of increase in local property taxes to 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less. Thus, the property tax cap would merely prevent unnecessarily large increases in local budgets.
Second, local spending is already significant and sufficient to assure Great Neck’s continuing high-quality facilities, especially since budgets may continue to increase modestly under the property tax cap proposal.
For instance, New York State schools spend the most per pupil in the entire nation (See The New York Times, 5/24/07, “The Highest Per Pupil Spending In The U.S.”), and Great Neck is at the top of the spending heap.
Political analyst Adam Shaeffer’s detailed analysis last year of Great Neck’s 2009 school spending (included in his analysis of 18 metro area schools) calculated that, taking into account various capital items, etc., Great Neck schools spend $29,836 per pupil – more than any other community in his study. (Other measurements also peg Great Neck spending at significant per pupil amounts.) It seems unlikely that we would need to increase this ample amount of spending by more than the rate of inflation or 2 percent per year.
Third, the people here are what make Great Neck great – not ever-increasing spending. For instance, Great Neck North High School Principal Bernard Kaplan’s caring and devotion towards every student is what is truly valuable. Seeing Mr. Kaplan outside, warmly greeting students and parents every morning has started the day right for everyone at the school for years. I still recall fondly how, after I learned that my younger daughter was accepted to her first-choice college, Mr. Kaplan ran to my daughter’s gym class to tell her the good news!
Beyond a certain point (which Great Neck has achieved), increasing spending does not equate with increasing educational quality.
Despite the fact that New York State is number one in per pupil spending, the National Assessment of Educational Progress places New York in the middle of the pack for educational achievement (e.g., #21 in reading and #28 in math in 2005). North and South Dakota spend about half of what New York spends, and yet place at or near the top in educational achievement.
In 2010, Newsweek rated Great Neck South High School as No. 75 in the country, and Great Neck North High School as No. 93 in the country (excluding elite private high schools). These are excellent ratings.
However, high schools which spend much less (about half of what Great Neck does) have similarly high or higher rankings than Great Neck.
For instance, the highly ranked Dallas, Texas magnet schools, Evansville, Indiana, and Corbett, Oregon high schools (ranked in the top five), and schools ranked similarly to Great Neck such as Little Rock Central (No. 94) and Booker T. Washington High in Tulsa, Oklahoma (No. 74) each are located in states that spend approximately half per pupil of what New York schools spend. There are schools located in many of the 43 states with existing property tax caps that surpass Great Neck in the school rankings.
Fourth, the most important influence on children’s educational achievement (and general happiness and adjustment to life) is still simply having concerned parents who involve themselves in their children’s education and lives. My real education came from my parents teaching me algebra and chess at a young age, and discussing history, current events and moral issues at the dinner table in a way that made these topics come alive. Parents who have to spend every waking minute working to pay their taxes and other bills do not have the time to teach and speak with their children about schoolwork and the myriad of subjects which a parent can convey to make his child truly educated.
Fifth, some optional improvements can be privately financed, with donations from those who can truly afford to contribute more, so that those who are struggling to pay their bills are not further burdened. For instance, last summer, Great Neck News senior editor Karen Rubin and her husband spearheaded a worthy drive for donations to buy trees for Great Neck parks, to replace trees felled by the micro shear/storm. Perhaps last week’s letter-writer – who loves Great Neck’s parks – will consider donating to the Rubins’ tree-purchasing effort.
On community issues, balance is often a virtue. After over a decade of huge, runaway property tax increases, many families in Great Neck and surrounding communities are struggling to pay their current taxes and other bills, and cannot afford any further tax increases. On the other hand, there are some people such as last week’s letter-writer who apparently don’t mind if their taxes increase considerably. The property tax cap proposal strikes a balance, permitting limited property tax increases, keeping us from losing more of the wonderful overburdened families who live in our community, and keeping Great Neck great.
(Author’s Note: This article was published in the Great Neck News, Williston Times, and New Hyde Park Courier on May 19, 2011.)