Budget opponents rally supporters, not candidates

Bill San Antonio

The Manhasset Proponents for School Accountability filled the Manhasset Public Library’s basement conference room last Wednesday with a public forum intended to explain the group’s opposition to the proposed 2013-14 Manhasset school budget.

But leaders of the group, who were aided in their presentation by opponents of school districts exceeding the state-mandated tax cap from around Long Island, said beyond educating residents and urging them to vote the budget down on May 21 they had no further interest in political involvement.

Laurie Pandelakis, who spoke on behalf of the Manhasset Proponents for School Accountability during the forum, said that because the group had been fairly dormant since the state implemented its tax cap, it hasn’t had the opportunity to organize itself to support potential candidates to challenge the trustee positions of incumbents Regina Rule and Craig Anderson in next month’s board of education election.

“When they started announcing their 6 percent [tax cap increase], we were not really organized or on our mark to get organized,” Pandelakis said in a phone interview with Blank Slate Media. “You need to get somebody involved in [running for the school board], and someone you can get behind. We were not able to do that.”

The Manhasset School District initially introduced a tax levy increase of 8.78 with its preliminary working budget March 4, a total the board of education decreased to 5.98 percent when it adopted its $89,296,198 budget April 17, and Rule and Anderson have focused their campaign for re-election on a history of fiscal responsibility despite the cap-exceeding levy increases.

Pandelakis said the MPSA has supported its own candidates running for the school board in past years, but a lack of election success has relegated the organization to staying in the voting booth but off the ballot itself.   

“We spent a lot of money and made calls throughout town and wrote letters and did the whole thing, but we didn’t win,” Pandelakis said. “After awhile, we realized that even if we had gotten someone onto the board, the people there are very friendly toward the teacher’s union and it wouldn’t have served any good purpose.”

In addition to the district’s increases in the tax levy, the Manhasset Proponents for School Accountability’s primary issues with the district rests within the power of the teacher’s union in negotiating contracts, whose salaries and benefits, Pandelakis said, increase each year regardless of merit.

One of the largest increases to this year’s budget, Superintendent Charles Cardillo has said, is in increases in state-mandated pension contributions from teachers and district employees. 

The teacher’s retirement contributions increased 16.25 percent from last year, and since 2009-10 they have increased 262 percent, according to the district’s budget document.

According to the document, contributions to the employee retirement system, which increased 20.90 percent since last year, have increased 299 percent since 2009-10.

“The board has had no desire to curtail the salaries and benefits in any way,” Pandelakis said. “We went to political action in going to Albany and having seminars Island-wide and Upstate, and when we got the tax cap we though ‘Eureka, we’ve arrived.’ And here we are two years later and they’re talking about a 6-percent increase.”

Manhasset Superintendent Charles Cardillo said the views of the Manhasset Proponents for School Accountability don’t reflect those of “mainstream Manhasset” and that “Pandelakis and friends are not saying anything they haven’t been saying for years.”

“The only time they’re really seen is at this time of the year,” Cardillo said by phone. “It’s comparable to Groundhog Day, where they pop their heads up, look around and go back underground. They’re on the outside looking in and trying to create an atmosphere of negativity in a town that most people are proud of.”

Pandelakis said the Manhasset Proponents for School Accountability has met with the board of education over the years to address its concerns, and Cardillo has said he’d meet with and listen to any of Manhasset’s taxpayers who have concerns regarding the budget.

But Cardillo said the Manhasset Proponents for School Accountability, in urging its supporters to vote against the budget, does not have the best interests of Manhasset students in mind, as two failed votes would require the district to decrease its $89,296,198 working budget by roughly $4.5 million, a figure less than the current 2012-13 budget.

If those cuts are necessary, the district would be forced to consolidate class sizes, lay off teachers, and eliminate its athletic programs and before-and-after-school programs.

“They continue to put forth information that would change the total fiber of what Manhasset schools have built, and that $4.5 million reduction would completely change the quality of the district,” Cardillo said. “We’re nationally considered one of the top high schools in America, and yet what they’re recommending would completely destroy the underpinnings of how Manhasset got to that level, and make Manhasset very un-Manhasset-like as a result.”

Pandelakis was joined in her presentation by East Islip’s Andrea Vecchio, Port Washington’s Frank Russo and Oyster Bay’s Anita MacDougall – all of whom opposed school districts exceeding the tax cap.

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Bill San Antonio

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