My school district is in trouble.
Newsday reported that “[t]he cafeteria at Westbury Middle School is so crowded that students avoid it. They try for space in guidance counselors’ offices or other rooms in the 91-year-old school. To accommodate everyone, lunch is often, and early, beginning at 10:30 a.m. Some of the school’s classrooms are in the basement, where a ladder leaning against a wall to a window serves as the fire escape. Summing up conditions, Pless Dickerson, the president of the school board, said the district has entered a ‘crisis phase.’
“The Westbury school district, unlike many on Long Island struggling with falling enrollment and building closures, is wrestling with surging demand — much of it from a growing immigrant community, officials said. Adding to the district’s challenges is that 77 percent of students are eligible for a free lunch, and 30 percent are considered to have limited English proficiency.
“The school district, which draws about 15 percent of students from the Village of Westbury and the rest largely from the unincorporated hamlet of New Cassel, has 74 homeless students and 130 unaccompanied minors. Many new students have come from Central America, Haiti and El Salvador. The Hispanic population in New Cassel was 49 percent in 2013, up from 41 percent in 2000. Westbury Village’s Hispanic population has risen from 19 percent to 25 percent in the same period.”
A $173 million bond by the school board to address some of the infrastructure problems associated with the overcrowding was retracted when there was fierce reaction to it by the community. The burden of an addition $500 per year in property taxes was too large to bear, many said. And it would be an unfair burden on the Village of Westbury since most students don’t come from the village itself but from adjacent New Cassel. The financial burden would fall mainly to village residents, a situation thought to be unfair.
No doubt the Westbury School Board bears part of the blame. Transparency isn’t part of its vocabulary. It is near impossible to know where money is truly being spent. But this is far from the entire story.
Someone once observed that history isn’t past, it is the present. This is no more true than in Westbury and several other struggling school districts on Long Island where overt racial discrimination in housing was the pattern as late as the mid-1950s and continued in the forme of blockbusting and redlining until recently. So the neighborhoods were defined: no blacks allowed in most areas, Hispanics directed to neighborhoods with existing African American residents.
Up the street from Westbury High School live some of America’s wealthiest residents, in estates that aren’t visible from the road. In parts of the Village of Westbury live some of America’s poorest people, in basement apartments subdivided into dormitories.
So the Westbury schools continue to expand with children who need the most help while contiguous school districts prosper by catering to children who start with many privileges. Any fair system would recognize the inequities of the situation, one created by morally corrupt practices in the past.
One other note: while only 15% of Westbury school children come from the village, it isn’t the case that in the Westbury-New Cassel area the village has only 15% of eligible school children. In fact, many white families in the village send their children to private schools. This means that all too often school taxes are viewed by some as being unfair since their own children don’t benefit from the schools. If all children who live in the Westbury School District went to the public schools, more parents would see that they have “skin in the game” and would have a different attitude about the schools and taxes.
In an ideal world, all schools would share burdens equally. In an ideal world, everyone would feel obligated to support public education fully. But we live in the real world and therefore must live with real problems. Real problems must be addressed somehow. When they aren’t, history’s sad legacy drags down the quality of life for everyone. Just ask Westbury residents about what they plan to do with a school system in crisis.