2017-03-17 / Front Page

School tax levy hike of 1.35% sought for next year

BY RIKKI N. MASSAND

At its February meeting the Garden City Board of Education discussed anticipated administrative and capital components of the 2017- 2018 school year budget, which as constituted includes a tax levy hike of 1.35 percent, the maximum allowed under this year’s tax cap. Last year Garden City’s levy was 1.26 percent, under a maximum 1.54 percent allowed. The district explains that its cap must rise due to the impact of the LIPA PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) for 2016-’17 and continuing for next year, as well as the local tax base growth factor at a period when it appears “Garden City is pretty much built out, with not many places to build something new and expand the property” according to Superintendent of Schools Dr. Robert Feirsen. Over the past five school budget years, including for next year, the average tax levy cap has been close to 1.25 percent.

The overall proposed budget for Garden City Public Schools’ next year is planned at $112.322 million, an increase of $1.494 million over last year’s record budget. Administrative and capital costs would be $12.688 million and $16.290 million, respectively. The May 16 community budget vote will either affirm or deny the calculations of the district.

Feirsen explained capital costs as all items related to maintenance, running buildings and physical plant. Capital projects in progress for the 2016-2017 school year, some of which are to be completed during the upcoming summer, include replacing of the high school’s synthetic turf field and track. The large-scale concept and funds were part of last May’s referendum vote, along with some other minor projects such as the Garden City Middle School’s breezeway windows replacement. The district will also install brand new clocks in all schools, upgrade security by installing new outdoor speakers on school grounds, institute a card entry system and an ADAS first responder alert system.

Separate from the use of the Capital Reserve Fund (established in May 2015) are prospects for new shelving in the Locust School library and drywell at the front entrance of Homestead School, plus replacing the classroom radiator covers at Homestead, Hemlock and Locust. In May with the budget vote a proposition to voters will be on the ballot to use a portion of the Capital Reserve Fund and pay for other projects, for the second year in a row as Dr. Feirsen has outlined at current budget discussions during school board meetings.

A major security initiative instituted by Garden City Public Schools was its security camera installations at every school building. One unfunded mandate that was listed with this year’s budget information includes appropriations of lead remediation measures, borne entirely by Garden City during this current school year. There is no reimbursement by New York State or any other entity for the on-the-fly adjustments and schools’ water protection that GCUFSD has undertaken since September. Water and energy saving “lead-free” drinking fountains were installed at each school prior to the highly publicized lead testing and presences above 15 parts-perbillion detected last fall.

“Program” defined by district administrators as costs allocated directly to student learning, including funding of teachers and instructional resources, would be the bulk -- $83.343 million or a 74.2 percent share – in the next fiscal year of June 2017 through May 2018. In its February 28 presentation the district’s statements said the next budget “maintains the robust program that prepares our students for the rigors of college and the demands of citizenship; recognizes the value of investments in S.T.E.A.M. and continues to provide resources for technology upgrades; includes funds for security upgrades and maintains the (RtI) continuum of special education services and opportunities for diverse learners. Feirsen says consistency in the percentages of overall budgets for administration, capital and program have been evident in his 12 years as leader of the district.

“That shows that we have always kept proportional spending the way it is and devoted most of our resources to the program side,” he said.

Plans for facilities’ work includes “re-landscaping” of Garden City Public Schools’ Administration Building at the corner of Cathedral Avenue, Cherry Valley Avenue and Seventh Street. “It is a historic building with architectural flourishes that no one can see, and it does not really proudly represent our community, re-landscaping would be of assistance there,” Dr. Feirsen said at the board meeting.

The lone public comment on the budget at the February 28 session had to do with a lack of investment in the school facilities, despite a clear need. Gerard Kelly, a resident of the west, asked if the 2017-2018 budget includes necessary updates and fixtures for bathrooms in the high school, next to the gym and auditorium. He says attending school performances and graduation events should never leave any person at a disadvantage, but out of date facilities do just that. Kelly is the chair of the village wide Mobility Impaired Committee and he has pleaded with district administrators for investment to address the concern, before it leaves a liability with any individual suffering an injury at the school grounds.

School Board President Angela Heineman told Kelly that the board and administration is aware of his points made at board meetings and they have read a letter he submitted.

“Right now where we are is that we are reviewing the accessibility of the bathrooms in the high school under the ADA compliance, with respect to our legal and moral obligations. As part of this review, at this point there is nothing specific in the budget. This is a process and because of the cost that would be involved this is likely something that would take longer than for this particular budget year,” she said to Kelly.

He replied to her that people in the Mobility Impaired Committee and their family members accept certain conditions locally, such as the layout of Seventh Street without prime handicapped parking, and they accept it “with the fact that Garden City can do better.” In short, that expectation carries forward for the Garden City Public Schools and its facilities, to accommodate residents.

“It is incumbent upon you and I do appreciate all you do as volunteers. But there is a certain amount of respect here in Garden City that needs to be upgraded. This happens on Seventh Street and it happens here at GCHS without the bathrooms being handicapped accessible. If you get stuck in them that is a life-changer and would make a person embarrassed, and no one should be embarrassed at a graduation or high school theater production. My vote on this budget in May is really dependent on how you respond to the disabled community,” Kelly said.

Heineman told him “we are sympathetic” however the school district could not run on emotion. “We have to take this into consideration along with everything else,” she said.

Administration of pupil transportation falls under the district’s Business and Finance Department (led by DiCapua). Positons include a director, assistant director, mechanics, bus drivers, bus attendants and more. Those costs were outlined with the recent budget projection. Currently 2,907 students are transported to district schools and 507 students (district residents) are bussed to other schools, including private school, in all providing rides to and from a total of 18 schools outside district borders. Private contractors hired by GCUFSD transport students to another 29 schools. There have been 756 athletic trips in 2016-2017 as of February 23, with 371 planned field trips to date. This year GCUFSD purchased 2 full size passenger buses and two passenger vans. Feirsen said bussing involves operations from 6 am through 10 or 11 pm, five days a week and sometimes weekends too. He presented the data and identified needs for the next transportation administration budget include two more 66-passenger buses with undercarriage storage and another van; cooperative transportation agreements through Nassau BOCES; cooperative bids for services with other districts and/or BOCES, assessing routing to private schools and considering alternative fuel buses.

The pupil transportation line item for 2017-2018 is projected at just under $4.43 million, an increase of $184,926 over the current budget allocation (up 4.36 percent). This boost is explained as the district taking note of a summer phenomenon, as the district found itself having to cover about $200,000 in costs due to bussing needs of students that moved into Garden City between June and September of 2016.

School personnel for maintenance is set for an increase of $81,591 from last year’s allocation. Items are listed under the budget line for “facilities-operations” and it includes salaries of seven head custodians (one for each school building) plus 33 custodians and cleaners, a head groundskeeper and his staff of four, a head maintainer and his staff of six, all district security guards and the director of GCUFSD facilities. “They are charged with infrastructure maintenance, upkeep of 20 playing fields, all athletic events with approximately 470 home games a year, maintaining walks and driveways, snow and ice removal, implementation of capital projects in-house and all day to day supervision and security,” Dr. Feirsen told the school board before detailing work done recently.

With scrutiny of figures of this year’s proposed New York State budget set by Governor Andrew Cuomo and due for State Senate adoption April 1, the Garden City district would receive an increase of approximately $37,000 in foundation aid for next year, the largest form of state grant for district operations. Feirsen called that projected increase “minimal” and said that GCUFSD figures are more reliable than Newsday’s reporting with higher amounts because auditors have reviewed the financial documents. He went into more detail on foundation aid news and said that Governor Cuomo is proposing a process to have foundation aid to districts re-figured each year with a different formula.

“There’s a consensus that the purpose of foundation aid is based on need. The needier your school district in terms of its ability to deliver a high-quality education and lacking resources, the more state aid you get. For state aid purposes they consider Garden City a very affluent place. More aid would be driven into high needs districts rather than districts like ours,” he explained.

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