Written by Wendy Kreitzman Saturday, 05 October 2013 00:00
In today’s tough economic times, as public schools face more and more criticism and an increase in choking unfunded mandates, school districts must come to terms with these new conditions and tighten their belts as they work towards maintaining educational standards. For the Great Neck Public Schools Board of Education, being fiscally prudent as they focus on providing the best possible education for each individual child, this has now come to include a new look at fees for allowing outside organizations to use school facilities. With the priority of education at the top of the list, the district must now be very certain that school district dollars are not spent on other-than-school activities.
The answer now rests on the actual increased charges for outside organizations to use school facilities.
During open time (when members of the public may raise items not on the agenda) the Board of Education’s increased fees for outside use of district facilities rose, with a large number of parents and coaches objecting to what they considered huge increases that many parents cannot afford.
Board of Education President Barbara Berkowitz opened with a formal statement, explaining the change in classes of uses and fees. She explained that in 2012, the fee structure was to be changed, but due to the large amount of complaints and the higher fees, Superintendent of Schools Tom Dolan had permitted the lesser fees to allow parents to be eased in to the eventual higher increases. Berkowitz further explained that eventual increases were necessary to recoup the expenses the district incurs for outside uses. “We have a responsibility to our taxpayers,” she said.
“We have to put educating our children first and foremost,” Berkowitz said. Stating that “times have changed,” she noted that the district’s summer programs were at first free, but then had to increase each year to recoup those costs. In both cases, the summer program and now the rental fees, Berkowitz made it clear that the school district does not want any of the children to suffer, but education must come first.
Parents discussed that they had met with Dolan previously and appeared to have different views of the conversations, views that differed with Dolan and members of the school board. Dolan emphasized that last year’s fees were for a one-year period only. Some said there were no meetings to discuss the newest fees, but Dolan and the board members disagreed.
When parents insisted on different perspectives, school board Trustee Donald Ashkenase said that in his 32 years on the board he had never heard accusations as the ones that were coming forth; the tone of the discussion was unacceptable.
Trustee Monique Bloom said that there had been meetings, but “no one ever came.” She stressed that she and the board are certainly “sympathetic and understand the value of the sports,” but that “we have to make choices.” Board member Susan Healy echoed Bloom, stating: “It’s a very hard choice … we know, we care.”
Board Vice President Lawrence Gross further explained the importance of maintaining the educational programs “at the same levels” and that they must now “look at every source of revenue.” Gross said that if they continue to spend on items such as facility rentals, they would have to make up the money by losing teachers. “The state has put pressure (financial) on us … we want to do what’s best, but unfortunately we have limits on what we can do,” he said.
And while parents and coaches kept speaking to the many benefits of the sports programs, such as CYO and PAL sponsored sports programs, all were reminded that the fee increases applied not only to sports team programs, but to any outside group that charges over $10 for membership. Dolan said that he did not want to see “the death of these programs,” and wants to meet with parents and coaches.
Dolan agreed to meet with those involved to work on developing “the right fee schedule.” The fees, for the moment, would remain at last year’s level until a new fee schedule is decided. And in order to avoid any confusion, as president of the school board, Berkowitz will attend the meeting, representing the board of education. And she noted that the new fees would apply to every organization in the same category as the teams.
“We’re nothing if not flexible,’ Berkowitz stated.