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District's eyes on safety, capital improvements and mental health in 2019-20 budget

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The proposed 2019-20 East Meadow School District budget includes funding for five additional security guards, in addition to the 10 who were hired this school year.

The guards are one of several security upgrades the district is proposing in the wake of a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in February 2018. School districts across Nassau County are increasing security as well.

The East Meadow district released its full budget April 10, after reviewing it in sections at a series of public meetings over several weeks.

The board voted 7-0 to adopt the proposal, which, officials said, funds several infrastructure and capital improvements and bolsters mental health education, in addition to adding security measures.

“We had a multi-layered, multi-year approach, and this is just another step along the continuum,” said Patrick Pizzo, the district’s assistant superintendent for business and finance, referring to the increased expenditures for security.

In addition to more guards, the district would also implement what Pizzo called a “door-ajar system,” which would alert security officials when doors are slightly open or unlocked.

“I don’t think you could just have one plan and feel confident,” Pizzo said. “I think you need to continue to evaluate, and see what direction to improve in.”

The proposed budget totals $208.63 million, an increase of 2.39 percent. The 2019-20 tax levy — the total amount the district must collect in taxes to meet expenses — is projected to rise by 2.14 percent, to just under $139.4 million, according to district officials. A tax-levy increase greater than 2.36 percent, or roughly $3.2 million, would exceed the state tax levy cap and require a supermajority of at least 60 percent of voters to pass — which the district has done only once, with the 2015-16 budget, when it implemented its full-day kindergarten program. “And I hope that’s the only time we do it,” Pizzo said.

“Any project on here is of the highest priority,” he added of the spending plan, which includes a number of renovations of district athletic fields as well as fencing, electrical upgrades, some ventilation improvements and new carpeting.

District-wide infrastructure improvements are part of an ongoing plan that takes into account input from school principals. “Everybody wants air conditioning. Everybody wants new technology,” Pizzo said. “But you need to have the backbone to support it . . . with the proper infrastructure.”

During a comment period on April 10, one parent suggested increasing mental health education. State law requires it on the elementary level, and the proposed budget would add a health teacher to give 10 lessons in mental health to third- and fourth-grade students. But the woman, who did not identify herself to the Herald, urged that the district include high school students as well.

She noted her daughter’s struggles with mental health, and cited a statistic from the Centers for Disease Control that one in every six high school students has contemplated suicide.

District Superintendent Kenneth Card said there were “promising practices emerging” to tackle mental health issues. Funds were allocated in the current budget to hire a guidance counselor who would institute a pilot mental health education program that would begin with sixth-grade students.

“I do feel we are pushing the boundaries for the betterment of all of our students,” said Trustee Eileen Napolitano. “I truly believe that approaching this is a marathon, and not a sprint.”

Another major expense for 2019-20 is an increase in storage space, which, Pizzo said, is necessitated by a spike in enrollment this year. The board also began discussing the possibility of purchasing the property behind the Leon J. Campo Salisbury Center. Currently owned by the Community Reform Temple of Salisbury, the building will become vacant when the temple merges with its counterpart in Jericho in September.

Some trustees suggested using the space as additional storage. “If this neighborhood continues to grow and burgeon,” said Scott Eckers, the board’s vice president, “I could see us using it as a school.”

Before the board makes any decisions, Card said, trustees would plan to visit the building, lay out short- and long-term goals, have Pizzo conduct a financial analysis and make a presentation at an upcoming public meeting. But no action on the building would be included in the budget.

Residents will vote on the spending plan on Tuesday, May 21, along with Proposition Two, which would allow the district to use nearly $1.8 left over from its 2018-19 budget in a capital reserve fund. Voters approved the creation of the reserve fund last year. The vote will also include the East Meadow library budget.