By Larry Gordon
The Number Six School in Woodmere is a sprawling piece of property that abuts Peninsula Boulevard and stretches over an expansive area spanning several blocks. The school, once the crown jewel of the Lawrence Public Schools, was closed a few years ago as part of the move to economize and downsize the decreasingly utilized school facilities in District 15.
The savings incurred by the district have, to date, totaled millions of dollars–one of the important reasons that the district has not needed to raise the school portion of the community’s tax assessment for the last five years or more. The school board, today under the direction of its president, Dr. Asher Mansdorf, continues on the consistent path of protecting the educational integrity of the schools while effectively and appropriately reacting to the continued demographic shift in the district. Today there are approximately 7,500 students in the district, with 4,000 attending yeshivas or other private schools and 3,500 students in the public schools.
The Number Six School has been up for sale for a while and the rumor mill has been rife on the subject of what company or which organization has designs on turning this central property into their flagship location. There have been fits and starts as well as campaigns to secure the property on the part of a number of businesses and institutions. Last year, for example, the JCC of the Greater Five Towns was prepared to undertake a massive communitywide campaign as a way of swaying the community to support the idea that the school district should sell the property to them so that a full-service JCC facility could be constructed on those premises.
When the JCC bid of about $10 million was submitted to the district for consideration, it was rejected as being too far below the market price. Now, following a school-board meeting this past Monday night, the board in a 4—3 vote endorsed the idea of selling the property to the Simone Real Estate Group based in Westchester County. The company, which develops properties for medical facilities, has offered $12.5 million for the property. The plan, if it goes forward, is for a series of medical offices to open at the site in association with Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan.
It sounds like an important and even well-thought-out plan that could conceivably be an asset to the community on multiple levels. That is, except for the fact that the property, which has been an educational facility since it was built in the 1960s, is also coveted and very much desired by the Shulamith School for Girls, currently an elementary school with once-upon-a-time roots in Brooklyn that has not just transplanted itself but has blossomed over the last few years in a significant fashion here in the Five Towns.
The point of contention itself and the myriad dynamics at play can be successfully and convincingly argued for either of the two potential buyers. The Simone Group has offered $2 million more for the property, with the Shulamith bid at $10.5 million. If the sale to Simone goes through, the real-estate taxes on the property could be as much as $1 million a year, with about two-thirds of that number earmarked for the education district. If a sale to Shulamith were effectuated, there would be no tax income, since the school is tax-exempt.
The school board president, Dr. Mansdorf, is a dentist who resides in Woodmere. He was the first Orthodox Jewish resident of the Five Towns to be elected and finally penetrate an opaque district board of education a decade ago. His election provided the growing yeshiva community in the district with a voice and representation, and today as president of the board he is firm in his belief that the sale to the real-estate group is in the best interests of the residents of the community as well as the educational district itself.
Dr. Mansdorf says that he certainly would like to see the Shulamith School get the property and that he believes they would indeed be an asset to the community. However, he says that first and foremost the board has a fiduciary responsibility to see to it that the district maximizes its income from the sale of the property.
“District residents have not had their taxes raised in more than five years,” Mansdorf said. This, he explains, is a result of prudent business deals, including the sale of the Number One School on Central Avenue to a real-estate developer group for over $30 million. “The education law dictates,” Mansdorf says, “that we go with the highest bidder. If we favor an institution because it is favored by some board members and the families associated with the school, that’s a great thing but not the task that this board is charged with,” he says.
While the board voted Monday night in favor of the sale to the Simone Group, the final decision rests with the people of the district, and there will be a public referendum conducted on March 20. The Simone Group has agreed to foot the bill for the referendum, which will run approximately $25,000.
Ari Cohen, president of the Shulamith School, does not quite see things the same way that Dr. Mansdorf does. “It’s true that our offer was $2 million less than Simone, but I think that we have a great deal more to offer the community, thereby mitigating the economic difference,” he says.
Cohen says that while Simone will turn the ball fields and playground on the property into a parking lot, Shulamith has committed to making the fields available to the community when school is not in session. He points out that this is over holidays, every Sunday, and the entire summer. “Yes, we are offering to pay less, but we are in effect not going to be dominating the entire property and are offering to share the property with the community,” he said.
Ben Weinstock–a Woodmere resident, the attorney representing Simone Corp., and the Deputy Mayor of Cedarhurst–says that the addition of the medical facility enhances the community on a multiplicity of levels. “The medical facility will feature offices for doctors in all areas of medical specialization that will be of service to the wider community. Doctors on site will be directly linked to doctors at Mt. Sinai Hospital in the city.”
Weinstock adds that considering that so many young families with children are populating the community, a top-notch medical facility will only enhance the quality of life and availability of health care for residents. He says that the group is being particularly mindful of the community’s needs and the plan is to have entrances to the medical office facility on Peninsula Boulevard and Branch Boulevard only, thereby alleviating concerns about additional vehicular congestion in the area. Weinstock adds that when you factor in the $1 million on real-estate taxes that the new facility will be paying, the real purchase price of the property is in fact $20 million, obviously substantially larger than the Shulamith offer.
Uri Kaufman, one of the dissenting board members and one of the three trustees that want to see the contract awarded to Shulamith, says that at the end of the day and after all the figuring, in effect the Shulamith School bid is higher than the Simone Group bid.
“The ball fields that Shulamith will allow the community to use are key to the deal,” Kaufman says. He further explains his reasoning, saying that the reality is that there is an increasing population of young people in the community surrounding the Number Six School and there is a shortage of playing fields. “Are you going to assign zero value to the availability of these fields to the public?” he asks.
“Allowing a medical center to open will be a degradation of the quality of life in the community,” Kaufman explains. He makes a quick mental calculation of what life will be like in a facility with what he says will be 100 doctors, each seeing about five patients an hour, he estimates. “The streets are going to be choked with cars and as it is already our streets cannot handle the current volume of traffic.”
Kaufman says he is at a loss to understand where the four board members–Mansdorf, Dr. David Sussman, Dr. Sol Blisko, and Murray Forman–are coming from. “The bid of $2 million less by Shulamith will mean a $30 addition to the annual taxes of the residents.” Kaufman believes that the small additional tax is well worthwhile.
Dr. Mansdorf sees the situation almost in the exact opposite fashion. He indicates that aside from the money, he does not want a board that has six Orthodox Jewish members on a seven-person board to be suspected of favoring a bidder just because it is a yeshiva. Some members of the community, and in particular parents who have children in the Shulamith School, see nothing wrong or unethical in selecting the yeshiva as the winner despite their lower bid. In fact, some insist that it is the obligation of this board in particular to select Shulamith.
For now, the battle lines have been drawn. The board has made its choice in the selection of the Simone Company and their $12.5 million bid. On March 20, the decision will be made by the community–the residents of District 15. The referendum will ask residents to vote yes or no on whether they support the board’s decision to award the contract to the medical center. If the sale is voted down, the bidding process for the property is reopened. Despite the disagreement and contentiousness on the education board, the reality is that whether the property is turned into medical offices or a yeshiva, there will be benefits to the surrounding community. This, however, does not make the choice any less difficult. v