By Uri Kaufman
It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while a community is asked to make a decision that will affect the quality of life for generations to come. Our community will face just such a decision on March 20. On that day, we will hold a referendum on whether to sell Public School Number Six to Simone Development and see it converted to a large medical center.
A few years back, the Lawrence Public Schools Board of Education–of which I am a member–made the difficult decision to close the Number Six School. This is the public school on the corner of Peninsula and Branch Boulevards in Woodmere. Closing a school is never easy. But in a time of declining enrollment, closing an underutilized building seemed a sensible way to give taxpayers relief without compromising education for the kids.
A broker was hired, an aggressive marketing campaign was launched, and the building and surrounding ball fields were put up for sale.
At the end of a lengthy process, the board received four bids. Contrary to popular misconception, the highest bid did not come from Simone Development. It actually came from a company called Life Time Fitness. They planned to turn the site into a mega-health club they called an “entertainment city”–a “city” with as many as 8,000 members. Can you imagine 8,000 cars trying to work their way down Rockaway Turnpike on Fourth of July weekend? Neither could we. The bid was rejected.
The second-highest bid came from Simone Development. The way it was told to us, Simone plans to convert the site into a medical megacenter with 100 doctors. More on that in a moment.
The two remaining bids came in at $2 million less than Simone. And they both came in from local charitable organizations that would keep the property off the tax rolls. However, these buyers offered to allow the community to continue using the ball fields. More on that in a moment as well.
The 7-member board of trustees met and voted 4—2 in favor of Simone. The vote would have gone 4—3, but board member Nahum Marcus was in Israel attending to his ailing father.
By law, now that the board has adopted the Simone bid, the public must vote in a referendum to either approve or reject the sale. I was one of the two board members who voted against the sale to Simone. And I’m writing this to ask you all to come out to the polls on March 20 and vote “No” on the referendum.
In the interest of fairness, let’s begin by describing the advantages of taking the Simone bid. They bid $2 million more than the others. Also, they will pay property taxes to the district, while nonprofits will be exempt from property taxes.
However, upon closer examination, the monetary advantages amount to very little. The $2 million difference in price works out to a one-time payment of about $150 per taxpaying family. The property taxes are even less. Even if the development ends up paying $1 million per year in property taxes–and that would require a very high tax assessment–in the context of Nassau County’s $2.8 billion budget, Town of Hempstead’s $420 million budget, the school district’s $93 million budget, the library, the sanitation district, and everything else, the average taxpaying family will save about $35 a year. Barely enough for half a tank of gas.
Some have argued that with all the storm damage the district has suffered, it is important to raise revenue wherever we can. This argument is a red herring. Given the district’s insurance coverage, as well as funding from FEMA and the state, the actual bill to the district for all storm damage might end up being zero, will probably come in at around $600,000, and cannot exceed $1.25 million. Put another way, the total bill will almost certainly be less than 1 percent of our annual budget.
Another argument is that the facility will bring new doctors to the community, or “heimishe healthcare,” as supporters have been saying. As this is the first time I have ever seen the adjective “heimishe” placed before the word “healthcare,” I can’t really say I know what they are talking about. What I can say is that the healthcare in our community seems pretty good to me. Medical megacenters–like those along Marcus Avenue in Lake Success, for example–mostly treat people from other communities. I don’t know why this facility would be any different.
So much for what we’d gain with the sale to Simone. What would we lose? Well, for starters we’d lose the five acres of ball fields surrounding the Six School. Simone will pave them over and turn them into a parking lot. I firmly believe that any buyer should be required to preserve those ball fields for continued community use. The nonprofits offered to allow the community to use those fields during off hours. Now, if the Simone bid is voted down, we will have to put the property back out to bid. However, at least we know that there are buyers prepared to preserve open space. That means the entire community can continue to play soccer, baseball, and football pretty much the way it has all along (even under public-school ownership, the fields were closed during school hours). This permission would be enshrined in a written document called an easement and recorded on the land record, so there is no question that the fields would indeed be preserved for public use.
The last thing a community like ours can afford to do is lose open space. We have a lot of kids. As a father of four, I can tell you that when the high-school ball fields were shut down for renovations, the little league was extremely stressed. Hundreds of kids literally bumped into each other trying to play baseball in the middle-school fields. At a time when communities across Long Island are struggling to preserve open space, it seems almost unimaginable that we would sell four or five irreplaceable acres for a few dollars. We might as well sell off a chunk of Grant Park.
This is not exactly a district that’s starving for cash. We have no debt, little or no deferred maintenance, and declining enrollment. The board has succeeded in controlling costs. When I became a board trustee in 2006, the budget was $93 million. Today it is still $93 million. Taxes have risen slightly in that period–mostly because we’ve lost much of our federal and state aid–but well below the rate of inflation. In real terms, factoring for inflation, we’ve actually cut taxes. Yes, we face a $6 million projected deficit next year, driven in no small part by new pension obligations. But that short-term problem hardly justifies selling off public assets that will be lost forever. We’re doing just fine, thank you very much.
Incidentally, for those that want the money more quickly to help pay for the projected shortfall, a nonprofit is the only way to go. The medical megacenter needs a variance that will take at least a year, and probably longer, to obtain. Apart from a small deposit, Simone Development doesn’t have to pay the district anything until they have the variance in hand. If they don’t get the variance, they get to back out, except for a small fee. A yeshiva or a community user, on the other hand, wouldn’t need a variance. Their approval process would be short and all but guaranteed. I honestly don’t think that the district’s financial situation is dire. But for those that think it is, definitely having $10.5 million this year is better than maybe having $12.5 million next year, or the year after that.
And that’s not all. Few things bring as much traffic to an area as a large medical facility. That’s why urban planners always cluster them together near highways. Dropping a facility of this size into a residential zone will mean hundreds of cars, every working hour of every day (they plan to keep it open seven days a week). Think of how Rockaway Turnpike already looks during rush hour. Add a few hundred more cars and you start to flirt with gridlock. The idea that a yeshiva might somehow cause traffic problems, as some have suggested, is patently absurd. The building has been a school for decades. There were times when the building was filled to capacity. We never had any trouble with parking or traffic before. I know that a community user would similarly blend well with the surrounding neighborhood.
In 1980, our community faced a similar dilemma when an earlier school board decided to close what was then known as Public School Number Three. You know that building today as HAFTR High School. At the time, a company called Geller Development bid more than HAFTR in the hope of knocking the building down and putting up an apartment house. Just like today, people in 1980 argued that the apartment house would pay property taxes, while the yeshiva would keep the building off the tax rolls.
Well, luckily for us, our predecessors had the good sense to sell the building for less to the yeshiva. They had the good sense to understand that everyone benefits when a community has quality schools. In all the years, never once has anyone been heard to complain that the neighborhood has been deprived of an apartment house. Never once has anyone been heard to complain that their property taxes might be $35 less. Instead, since 1980, thousands of yeshiva students have passed through HAFTR High School.
It’s our turn to rise to meet the same challenge the community faced in 1980. It’s our turn to reaffirm the commitment to quality schools, open space, and quality of life. What sensible person would trade away all that for the possibility of obtaining such a paltry return? Please come to the polls on March 20 and vote no on the referendum. Later generations will be glad that you did. v