For the second year in a row, the budget proposed by the School Board of the West Hempstead Union Free School District (WHUFSD) failed to garner the necessary votes to pass. The budget was defeated 1370 to 1169, with 54% of the community saying they were unwilling to continue with the continual budget increases that have occurred despite a dropping enrollment. While happy to ensure the future of all students in the district, the community has said that the bleeding has to stop.
West Hempstead is a small public school district that has been dropping in student population consistently for the past decade. In 2015, the 2,036 students had a budget of $59.5 million. The proposed budget for the upcoming year was over $74 million, despite the student population dropping under 1600. For comparison, Merrick has a similar student population with a total budget of $58.9 million.
There is also an equivalent student population that does not attend the public schools, who’s parents opt to spend tens of thousands of dollars more to send to private or parochial schools. They do not do this because they dislike the public school, or because they are so wealthy. They do this because sending their children to an environment that preaches the values and the additional curriculum that they want to pass to those children is far more important than things like second mortgages and long term debt obligations. While many parents save for 18 years to be able to pay for college, these parents are spending college-level tuition every year from K through 12. They have little say on the state tax, income tax, sales tax, and every other tax that comes their way. So when the issue of a rising property tax is up for a vote, they need to say “No.”
This is why it’s so disheartening and despicable that many in the public school system see these parents as the enemy. “By not passing the budget, it tells me the adults of this community don’t care about our children,” said one Facebook user. Others are threatening the non-public school parents by saying that the system should cut the only things that the non-public school parents take advantage of. “With all this being said,” another resident wrote on a public Facebook forum, “there’s a saying “you’re going to f around too much and find out” and hopefully with this years budget not passing, it’s time to find out what happens when people f around too much. Meaning: centralized busing, no more convenient bus stops on a set route but everyone goes to one place to get their buses. That will slash the transportation budget immensely. No more usage of the fields and parks after school hours saving money that way.”
Aside from the general nastiness of these comments, and the clear antagonistic language that is permeating the community, there is an ignorance on how more than half of the community feels about this issue. That ignorance compounded with willful blindness to learn about the desires of those that voted against the budget means that there is unlikely to be any resolution or unity going forward.
If anything, those who support the budget and the district should be thanking those that choose not to send their children to the public school. First, with more than 70% of the property taxes coming from every household, these are the people that are literally paying for the education of every child enrolled in WHUFSD. Second, they are getting away with spending 2-5% per child in the district that doesn’t attend the district’s schools than they would have if they attended the schools, with the parents footing the rest of the bill. If those same parents flooded the system with their children, the district would be forced to either double its budget or make massive cuts to literally every non-essential program. Since the district couldn’t pass a 1.99% tax increase, there is no chance it passes a 100% tax increase.
This is literally what happened in Wainscott, the only other district in Long Island that failed to pass a budget. Wainscott is a tiny town of a few hundred people. Their enrollment is 120 students. When their enrollment increased by 22%, or 20 students, they needed to increase the tax levy on the community by nearly 50%. Since that is above the cap, they required 60% of the vote. That vote failed 91-65.
In a district of 1500, like West Hempstead has, that is the equivalent of over 300 new students coming into the district to force it to make significant tax increases or budget cuts. The parents who choose to send their children to non-public schools should not be threatened for the crumbs that are sent their way, by New York State law, to be taken. Parents shouldn’t be asked to use their children as pawns in a cynical political game. Children shouldn’t be used as threats against voters. The rhetoric must stop, and the Board are the ones that must put a stop to it. Every Board member should publicly, on video, tell people to stop with the hateful rhetoric against members of their own community.
During the public forum hosted in the High School, a lot of statistics about the greatness of the West Hempstead school district were spoken about. Yes, there is a lot to be proud of. People should also realize that the district is standing on the backs of every parent that pays taxes but doesn’t utilize their services and calling themselves tall. Yet in a private group founded to organize a yes vote on a new budget, one which has not yet been revealed to the public, someone said, “its so sad that that people who don’t use the schools get a say in what happens.”
This is a gross misconception of who the school board works for. The Board is a representative body of the community, not of the public schools, the teachers unions, the PTA, or even the students. Obviously, any elected representative needs to be cognizant of the stakeholders in the community, and needs to hear their wants, needs and complaints. Yet there is no excuse for a member to forget who they are actually representing, and that is the whole community.
This is what the community wants. They want a strong school system at a reasonable cost. The budget, as it is now and as it has been for the past decade, is unreasonable. No one should envy the task ahead of those that craft the budget, they have some hard and unpopular decisions that need to be made. Yet they must listen to the wishes of the community and deliver a new budget at no additional increase to the taxpayer. The burden is high enough.