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Public Education: Holding It Together

A Happy Trade-Off--High Taxes, Fine Schools

A family that moved from California to New York state marvels at the small classes and rich resources.

June 22, 1996|ROBIN GREENE | Robin Greene is a free-lance journalist

You know what's really cool about my new school?" my son, Justin, asked me less than a month after we transferred him from his beloved school in Thousand Oaks to a school outside Rochester, N.Y.

"What?" I replied, thrilled by the fact that he had found something positive about his new third-grade class.

"When we take spelling tests, we get to use a whole piece of paper instead of a half," he said.

Little did Justin, 8, know that he had just put his finger on the difference between his new school, Thornell Road Elementary School in Pittsford, N.Y., and his old school, Park Oaks Elementary School in Thousand Oaks. The difference comes down to one thing: Proposition 13.

On the surface, Park Oaks and Thornell Road are similar. Park Oaks has 525 students from kindergarten to sixth grade, while Thornell Road has 450 kindergarten to fifth grade students.

There are differences, of course. This being upstate New York, the demographic makeup is more homogeneous, and English-as-a-second- language is a non-issue. But the real difference isn't about demographics. It's how much money each school can spend on its students.

The average class size at Park Oaks was 32 students, while Thornell Road in New York averages 24 (and parents are outraged by the overcrowding). Park Oaks has 17 regular teachers while Thornell Road has 19 (with fewer students and one less grade to teach). Thornell Road also has three full-time teaching aides.

The entire staff at Thornell Road is fully accredited. There's a full-time physical education teacher and some parents are lobbying for another woman P.E. teacher to instruct the older girls. At Park Oaks, two of our PTA moms, not credentialed teachers, served as part-time P.E. specialists.

Thornell Road has a full-time music teacher who specializes in vocals. Another part-time music teacher visits the school to teach instrumental music. Park Oaks had a part-time uncredentialed music teacher who spent five hours a week at the school. To help compensate, our principal at Park Oaks, Leean Nemeroff, spent a half-hour every Friday afternoon singing with the third-graders.

Thornell Road has a full-time registered nurse who also teaches safety and health to the students. Park Oaks had a part-time nurse/clerk and a wonderful school secretary who ministered to cuts and bruises.

The list goes on. The Thornell Road staff includes a full-time school psychologist, guidance counselor, speech and language therapist, reading teacher, librarian, computer teacher and art teacher.

Park Oaks had none of those. Instead, it had a full-time special education teacher and three other part-time reading and language specialists. There was a credentialed but part-time computer specialist on staff, and the librarian was a dear woman who worked full-time for a part-time salary to keep the books on the shelves.

The bottom line for us, as parents, however, is dollars and sense. As in common sense. In Thousand Oaks, we were paying about $3,200 a year in property taxes on our $270,000 home. Here, in New York, we're paying considerably more, $6,660 on a $216,000 home. Is it worth it? You bet.

We're talking about a difference of $3,460 a year to send my two children to a school that boasts scores nicely above national averages. It would cost me a lot more than that to send two children to private school.

One other point: Paying more taxes to support public schools maintains home values. Sure, higher taxes are a problem for older couples on a fixed income. But New York state has a property tax exemption for anyone 65 years or older with an annual income below $25,900.

In fact, we bought our house from a couple whose children had long since graduated from the local public school system. They paid their taxes and it took only three weeks to sell their home because it is in a desirable school district.

Has it occurred to anyone that California's housing slump may be partly attributable to the quality of its schools? And does any of this change my feelings about Park Oaks? Of course not. I think Justin and his sister Sara, 6, were very lucky to have been able to attend that school. I loved their teachers. I think their principal was inspired.

What I can't help wondering is what Park Oaks or any other California school would be like if it had the resources of Thornell Road.

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