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And Now For Something Completely Different -- Vote NO

letterThis letter was submitted by Robert J. Berg of Tisdale Road in Scarsdale:
An Open Letter to Scarsdale Taxpayers – Just Vote "No" on May 21 and Defeat the Bloated Proposed $145.3 Million School Budget which Defies the New York State Tax Cap and Raises your School Taxes by 3.93%.

  • The proposed budget will increase your school property taxes by 3.93%, and will blow through the State tax cap by $701,267, while spending $1 million on building the empty shell of an ill-defined "Wellness" Center.
  • 57% of households in Scarsdale have no children in the school system, but pay most of the cost of educating other people's children.
  • Less than 1 out of every 10 registered voters in Scarsdale ACTUALLY votes on the school budget most years. This means a small minority dictates the outcome of the vote and your tax burden.
  • Empty nesters have the power to limit their tax burden, BUT ONLY IF YOU COME OUT AND VOTE "NO" ON MAY 21. Don't complain about your property taxes – do something about them this time!


I have two children who currently attend the High School. I will vote "NO" on May 21 anyway. Here are some of the "facts" as I see them that lead me to my "NO" vote.

1. The $1 million taxpayers are being asked to dole out this year for the proposed High School Wellness Center is "a pig in a poke." Instead of funding a complete, fully outfitted, state of the art fitness center, filled with high tech gadgets, all the $1 million buys is the construction of the walls, ceilings, ventilation system, and electrical system in a pancake-like sprawling 4,500 square foot space with severe height constraints. So far unsaid is how this Wellness Center will be equipped, who will pay for the brand-new elliptical cross trainers, stationary bicycles, treadmills, free weights, and strength and conditioning circuit machines sufficient to allow an entire physical education class or two to work out simultaneously, and who will staff the Center. During the tour I took last week of the facilities, the gym teacher told me that preliminary cost estimates for the equipment range up to about $200,000 and that the old equipment in the current fitness center will not be used in the new Wellness Center, but will be disposed of. And don't forget, the $1 million won't cover the glass-walled central core classroom/laboratory that is supposed to be the hallmark of this facility. So don't believe the "spin" of the Administration and the Board of Education that the Wellness Center is just a $1 million line item in a $145 million budget. It's going to cost a lot more than that for Scarsdale taxpayers. Further, the taxpaying public will not be permitted to use the facility – it is only for student and staff use.

2. More fundamentally, in a time of continued economic stress, the "fact" is that Scarsdale High School already has more than ample physical fitness facilities, and they have not been put to the most effective use. There are, astonishingly, three full-size gymnasiums in the high school plus a large multi-purpose room, as well as the existing fitness center. Of course, outside, the high school has a beautiful track, an artificial turf field (that is expected to need replacement in the next few years for an estimated cost of $800,000), many tennis courts, platform tennis courts, and a baseball diamond. Even assuming that the current fitness center should be moved, why not use the existing, spacious, high-ceiling multi-purpose room immediately adjacent to the massive new gymnasium for the Wellness Center? That multi-purpose room is already very well-lit, has modern ventilation, lots of windows, and is conveniently located right above the locker rooms. That solution immediately saves taxpayers $1 million and new equipment could be moved right in this summer.

3. The Administration's contention that moving the fitness center from its current, out-of-the-way location down dimly lit, unattractive corridors will somehow then free up that "prime real estate" smacks of internal inconsistency. How can that space be considered prime real estate? More significantly, when I toured the space last week with Principal Bonamo, I noticed that the corridor walls appeared to be structural, load bearing walls that likely would not be able to be blown out to open up this "prime real estate." Principal Bonamo said that, to his knowledge, no one has yet determined whether or not these are structural walls. So no one really knows how or if this supposedly dingy, cramped, remote fitness center and adjacent no-longer-in-use bathrooms, locker rooms, and offices can miraculously be transformed into "prime real estate" and at what astronomical cost.

4. Empty nesters, in particular, should ask themselves: "How long will I be able to afford to stay in my home in Scarsdale where I have lived for 20, 30, 40 years or more if my property taxes keep soaring?" Unless we are fortunate enough to be multi-millionaires, sadly, for most of us, we will come to the only rational economic decision – we'll have to move away because of the excessive property tax burden, which is predominantly driven by the school budget. Forcing our empty nesters to leave town because of uncontrolled school spending is wrong on so many levels and is destructive to the very fabric of the community and to the many community organizations that depend heavily on the extraordinary time and talents provided by empty nesters. Scarsdale is not just a way station for people to leave after they have had their children educated in our schools – an education which empty nesters subsidize by more than half. Empty nesters – this is your community – you need to come out and vote "NO" and protect your financial ability to remain here.

5. The District is presently negotiating with the teachers' union for a new contract. The current teachers' contract expires on June 30 of this year. The School Board has, for several decades, followed an avowed policy of paying teachers at the absolute highest compensation levels in the entire State. This practice has, unsurprisingly, created a dramatic gap between teacher compensation in Scarsdale and in our peer school districts like Bronxville, Chappaqua, Edgemont, and Rye City. The School Board and Administration have publicly expressed that they will seek to reduce the salary gap. How can they convince the teachers that tough economic times warrant a contraction in the salary gap in the face of a spendthrift budget?

6. Only four school districts in the lower Hudson Valley, including Scarsdale, are proposing budgets which exceed their State-adjusted tax caps. All of our peer school districts, however, have proposed school budgets that fall within their State-adjusted tax caps and some of which are more than $1 million below their allowable tax caps. These peer districts include: Bronxville, which for the past four years had come in with no growth budgets, and whose budget this year will be $300,000 below the tax cap of 3.24%; Edgemont, with a projected tax increase of only 2%, and a budget which provides for no staffing cuts and no increase in average class size; Mamaroneck, with a projected tax increase of 2.73% and a budget that comes in $1,158,027 below the tax cap; Katonah-Lewisboro, with a projected tax increase of only 1.34% and a budget $192,257 below the tax cap; Rye Neck, with a budget $1,618,988 below the tax cap; Pelham, with a projected tax increase of 3.25% and a budget $403,402 below the tax cap; and Harrison, with a budget $749,608 below the tax cap. The Scarsdale School Board, however, slaps taxpayers in the face, crashing through the tax cap with another huge 3.93% spike in school property taxes and a $1 million expenditure on a subterranean shell.

This year, you have the chance to send a strong message to the School Board and Administration – Stop the spending madness and stop it NOW! Please come out to vote on May 21, and vote "NO." I assure you that Armageddon will not be at hand – You'll get a chance to vote "YES" a month later when the Board presents us with a budget that eliminates the $1 million down payment on the ill-planned Wellness Center and comes within the tax cap by drawing down $700,000 from our more than ample reserves. Thank you, and I look forward to seeing you at the polls.

Very truly yours,

Robert J. Berg

Comments   

0 #24 Erick 2013-05-21 11:51
Down she goes!

I love how the prior poster compares Scarsdale property values to property values in Rye Neck and Harrison. There is not a scintilla of evidence that the Scarsdale School District is any better. The reason Scarsdale has higher test scores is that Rye Neck and Harrison have very large populations of just plain old middle-class people, many of whom do not have college educations. 'Ya think their kids may not have the same advantages as Scarsdale kids, few of which have just plain-old middle-class parents who do not have college educations?
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0 #23 With Mr. Berg 2013-05-21 04:00
I could not agree more. It is time that we, as informed residents, think for ourselves and vote NO on the school budget. If this "wellness" center is so important, I am sure the school can find and cut other wasteful expenditures and free up the funds. However the idea that somehow, because we are Scarsdale I suppose, we "should" go $700,000 over the tax cap is, simply put, entitled BS. We should all live within our means, and our residents should not be voting to increase their neighbors taxes.

I will be voting NO, and I hope many of you do.
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0 #22 Its Albany, stupid 2013-05-20 22:44
While the increases in taxes all around are disturbing at a minimum, focusing anger on the school board is misguided in my opinion. The increase in my taxes will not be welcomed for sure, but I see the mismanagement in Albany as the larger culprit here. If you support state-wide candidates that advocate for an extension of the defined benefit pension plans so ingrained in the entitlement-foc used mindset of state workers, then don't get upset at the school board that appears to be handcuffed by state spending mandates.

Whatever happens after today's vote, please don't allow Albany lawmakers to continue to provide vast entitlements and generous pensions that bankrupt our towns and increase our taxes each year. Vote THEM out!
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0 #21 scarsdale school facts 2013-05-20 22:01
the scarsdale school system is absurdly over rated...they are a legend in their own minds. however, the children going to this school will have a hard time getting into an ivy league school unless they are star athlete's. scarsdale is viewed very negatively by the ivy league schools in general. so why does ANYONE want to pay top dollar in taxes.

school officials are good at portraying an image of an elite school, but they don't back it up with the goods. they want us to pay absurd taxes to fund their pipe dream...i thought people who lived in scarsdale were supposed to be smart.
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0 #20 Just Wondering 2013-05-20 10:59
If there is no agreement on a teacher's contract, what are they using for the estimated salaries? I can only assume Triborough. In almost every district in Westchester including Chappaqua which just settled with their teachers, the settlements were for LESS THAN Triborough. First, will our teachers agree to be partners with the residents and show that their priority is our children's education and not getting as much as the law allows. What is the district planning on doing with the surplus if they do agree to less than Triborough? Maybe use that for renovations. Finally, what incentive do the teachers and all the unions have to negotiate below Triborough if it is already in the budget? Maybe the district is waiting to announce a new deal until after the vote?

Vote NO, eliminate the funding for wellness and send the message to the board and the unions that there is a limit.
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0 #19 Wellness Center Facts 2013-05-20 05:10
Obviously the Wellness Center is a polarizing issue in this town. So I feel the need to clarify one thing. The expenditures toward the Wellness Center does NOT count against the tax cap. In other words, removing the Wellness Center from the budget does NOT put us in compliance with the tax cap. This is a red herring issue as it relates to the tax cap.

Also, has anyone checked the real estate prices in town recently. They are sky high, despite our high taxes. The same can't be said for places the like Harrison, Rye Neck and others that Bob listed as our peer group. Why? Because people move to Scarsdale from the city for our top, tops schools (not to Harrison or Rye Neck). They understand the $30K - $50K in property taxes for 2 or 3 kids is a bargain compared to their apartment and tuition at a top private school. So, Bob, with real estate prices so strong and so much demand you can easily relocate to one of the neighboring towns you mentioned that is under the cap. Then you can rest easy at night.
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0 #18 two-wage earners 2013-05-19 23:49
For families that have both parents working, working hard, commuting down to dust: NO to the budget.
Your hard earned money should be utilized effectively, and more cost cutting should be proposed and achieved. Wall Street has been cutting, why shouldn't Scarsdale schools?
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0 #17 Paying Attention 2013-05-19 05:27
I appreciate that this budget doesn't match up with each and every citizen's wants and needs, either by virtue of what it includes or by virtue of what it excludes...I also recognize the criticism of the business decisions asserted here and elsewhere because we have an extraordinarily savvy electorate, but I am hesitant to accept that the board and the administration made them with less knowledge (or less data) than we the public possess. As someone who has paid attention to the proceedings and not just the public banter, I believe the decisions made by our elected officials were made thoughtfully, inquisitively and incorporating a variety of opinions. It seems to me that is what we want them to do. I refuse to assert that I know better just how they should reach the conclusions that they did. Are there issues around process? Yes. Are we paying for decisions made in prior years? Yes. But do you really think that voting "no" will right those issues? Do you really think voting "no" will lead to a budget that will make everyone break out in a round of Kumbya?

There have been a variety of reasons presented not to vote for the budget, but none are as compelling as voting YES...if I cannot afford to live here when I am an "empty nester", I will leave, and I will hopefully sell my home to a family who wants the kind of public education Scarsdale has continued to provide for my kids, because there are fewer and fewer communities where this kind of education is available. Don't assume you will get what you want by voting no - get involved and make it what you want going forward. Don't endanger what we have because it's not perfect or not everything you personally want. And, as a soon to be "empty nester," don't assume you have a clue what I want.
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0 #16 Jackie Irwin 2013-05-19 05:21
Robert Berg’s appeal to empty nesters to vote no on the school budget mistakenly treats the empty nester cohort in town, including those with more limited financial means, as some monolithic group whose motives are exclusively self-interested . Many of us seniors reject the notion that once our children are out of the schools, we no longer have any obligation for the well being of other residents’ children. Those of us who have chosen to stay in town - despite the fact that many of us could cash out on the appreciation of our homes - believe that we have a responsibility to the next generations. Sure, we may not like everything about this budget and we should remain vigilant against excessive discretionary spending, but the larger issue is what even we empty nesters can do to maintain and improve our community’s most important assets.

Mr. Berg’s fallacy is that rising property taxes will become the tipping point that drives seniors out of the community. It is more likely that those whose priority is the tax burden have already left. Mr. Berg may not be old enough, but let me reassure him that there a lot of other pressures – try health and health care expenses – that can impact an empty nester’s decision to stay or leave. I will vote YES on Tuesday and I will become more involved in the 2013-14 budget process.
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0 #15 Mom of three 2013-05-19 04:25
Mr. Berg, thanks so much for speaking up. It amazes me how people around here complain about taxes, but seem to blame "the village" - when school taxes make up well over half of everyone's taxes. Do they not look at their tax bills? I have voted against the school budget more times than I've voted for it. I think the schools are excellent here, but I'm sure there are cost-cutting opportunities that would not compromise the quality of the education. There just seems to be a tax and spend attitude that everyone accepts.
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