The only public school district on Long Island where voters rejected the proposed budget in May had its revote on Tuesday. Residents of West Hempstead cast their ballots on how much in taxes they will be paying in property taxes to support their public school district. Outside the West Hempstead Middle School, the scene was less tense than last time, when the proposed tax increase was 2.14 percent. This time it was 1.5 percent, following a series of newsletters, a public presentation, and pleas from public school parents. The proposed hike is lower than the average for a Nassau County district.
“Voting down the budget will only save the average West Hempstead household $115 a year. That’s 32 cents a day. A failing school district negatively affects our children and our community,” one parent wrote in a community Facebook group.
Another supportive parent commented about the rising cost of “out of district” expenses, such as busing to private schools in Queens and the Five Towns. This term does not mention Orthodox Jews by name, but I feared the potential for tension as it was experienced in other suburban districts with growing Orthodox populations. Among opponents of the proposed budget, there were questions regarding reserve funds, equivalent to nearly a quarter of the budget. Should a school building need repair, or perhaps the number of retiring teachers or incoming students exceeds expectations, the “rainy day” fund would cover such unexpected expenses.
In the week preceding the election, flyers authored by “Overburdened Taxpayers of West Hempstead” appeared on many porches, including mine. I was offended by the anonymity of its writers, hiding behind numbers printed out of context. “The well-informed, in the know, who value our children’s education, understand how reserves are calculated and necessary, and that this budget is both sound and prudent,” wrote Seth Bykofsky, a former civic association president, who described the authors as “cowards.”
I did not need convincing, because last week I attended the Moving-Up Ceremony at the Chestnut Street School, which serves students between pre-K and first grade. It was not our first choice of school, but in the seven months since my son became a student here, there was significant progress in his behavior, academic skills, and interpersonal relations. My wife and I stood in awe as he stood with his kipah and tzitzis, reciting the lines to the school anthem. No fidgeting, jumping, or running away. He stood in place and expressed pride in graduating Kindergarten.
The crowd of parents was diverse. They spoke Spanish, Chinese, and Italian, among other languages. Looking carefully, there were a handful of other Orthodox couples and the feeling that we were not alone. “Chestnut Beis Midrash,” one parent remarked. The amazing team, composed of the teacher, assistant, speech therapist, occupational therapist, school psychologist, and ABA therapist, exceeded my expectations. I am excited to see my son speaking in full sentences, expressing interest in his friends, sharing, taking turns, and holding his temper. The staff first addressed my son’s behavior, and then focused on his academics.
Concerning his Jewish education, he learned the alef-beis, brachos, parshas ha’shavua, and davening daily from a siddur at home, along with Shabbos groups and children’s programs at our shul. We are confident that when he is ready to learn at a yeshivah, he will be prepared for it, spiritually and academically.
Looking at the kindergarten graduation program at the local public school, there were a handful of other Jewish names. We are a charitable people. We donate to organizations that serve Jews and gentiles. It is easy to complain about taxes going to a school district whose services to the frum community are limited mainly to busing and access to the schoolyard, but for the few Jewish children who attend these schools, the resources that they receive depend on the results of the public budget vote. For their future, we should support the local school district.
By Sergey Kadinsky