The Plainedge Board of Education held their second Board/Community Dialogue about a proposed bond, on Monday, following their decision to put up a $50 million bond rather than a $25 million bond.
The amount of the bond was based upon whether the Plainedge administration chose to rebuild or renovate Packard Middle School. The second of these community forums began much as the first did, with the board and administration presenting the same facts and figures but the difference was that at the last board of education meeting the board voted to put up a bond referendum that would facilitate the rebuilding rather than renovation of the middle school.
School Board President Josephine Reder began the meeting stating, "The message we're going to be giving you is a very important message for the well-being of Plainedge and for the future of our children and also for the future of our community. What happens this year will really define our community way into the next century so it is very important that we give you this message." Reder added, "Several years ago we came to the conclusion that Packard was not a functioning building. It's not an unsafe building, however it's not a building for the future of our students' further educational needs ... The board, at the last public board meeting, in November, voted to rebuild the building, rebuild an entire new structure, however after that it goes to you the taxpayers to make that decision on whether or not to fund that. We only vote on will we build or will we rebuild. We have voted to rebuild and now it will be up to all of you, as taxpayers, to make the decision, are we going to get the funding to do it?"
The message that was presented, not only by Reder, but by Packard Principal Chris P'Simer and Plainedge Superintendent Dr. John Richman, was that the school, as it currently exists, is not able to accommodate the number of students who will be entering the middle school and does not provide the best learning environment for the students, who are now facing new mandates by the state.
P'Simer presented information about how education has changed in the last 10 years and why the middle school building that currently exists does not best accommodate the new teaching and learning doctrines. P'Simer also noted that currently they are having a problem at the school because of the lack of space and it was pointed out that the projections for the coming years has the number of students who will be entering the middle school even higher, which will cause even greater difficulties.
Another problem at the current middle school, according to Richman, who also made a presentation, is the physical structure of the building itself. While stressing that the building is structurally safe, the concrete is crumbling which is exposing steel support beams, there are leaks, and it is not energy efficient.
Based on this information and the knowledge that the state education department has recommended that they rebuild rather than renovate, the board chose to put up a $50 million bond, possibly in March, which would provide $40 million for the new school and $10 million for other improvements within the district. The state is providing an additional 10 percent incentive on capital improvements approved by voters before July 1 of this year, bringing the percentage of aid that the district would receive on aidable projects, to 65 percent. This represents a savings to the district of $5 million for a project approved by the deadline.
A new building, based on an approximate cost of $40 million, would cost the average homeowner $248 annually. In addition to the renovation or rebuilding of Packard, the district would like to include in the bond renovations and improvements to the rest of the buildings in the district, costing approximately $10 million. With a new building and the additional renovations, the amount of the bond may be brought up to $50 million, at an annual cost to the average taxpayer of approximately $318.
"I know that this community is heavily taxed, there's just no getting away from that, there's no hiding it and it's unfortunate that we don't have more commercial base to offset the cost to the residential owner," noted Richman. "The difficulty, for the board and for us as the administrators working with the board, is to then make sound educational decisions that are going to help our children and so in the end you, as taxpayers, will have the opportunity to either support or not support this at the polls by either voting yes or no but because of the financial situation that we face with the state this year, I was really forced to move ahead with this agenda with the support of the board."
It was the idea that they could only vote yes or no and could not choose at the polls whether they wanted to renovate or rebuild Packard that had many residents frustrated and angry at the meeting. Several community members said that they should have that option rather than just being able to vote yes or no on a set bond amount.
Another aspect of the proposal that residents took exception to was the speed with which this proposal has come up. Several people at the forum said that they felt that the board was using "scare tactics" to force them to vote yes on the bond referendum because the board told them that if it were not done this year the district most likely would never be able to afford to do this project again because the state would be cutting aid. Reder responded that the board was not trying to use scare tactics but that they felt rushed into a decision by the state.
The maintenance of the building was also an issue that was raised by residents. One resident questioned how they were to know that the new building would be properly maintained and would not run into the same problems 10 years down the road, since Packard is the newest of the district's buildings and already had to be rebuilt. Residents were reminded that the building leaked and had other problems from the day it was built. One community member said that someone should take responsibility for those problems then and that it should not be put onto the taxpayers.
Many other concerns were raised by residents who did not want to see their taxes raised. The financial concerns of those residents upset a few others who felt that it should be the well-being of the students taken into consideration and not the money. Many expressed the feeling that it was not about the money but the process and the idea that nothing was done sooner that may have eliminated the need to rebuild. Several suggestions were raised about how the student populations could be moved around or the building could be put on another site but the district administrators said that they, along with the architects have looked at all the options and that building on the existing site was the best possible solution because more would be funded by the state. They also noted that because none of the properties are as large as the state would like for a middle school, the district has had to apply for a variance to build on the existing property.
At several points during the two and a half hour forum voices were raised and residents expressed anger and frustration with the board and administration.
In response to the many concerns raised the decision was made to move the Dec. 9 board of education meeting to Packard so residents could tour the facility and view the problem areas. The three members of the board who were present at the forum also told the residents that they would bring the suggestion of having a third option about whether to renovate Packard rather than just a yes or no on a set bond figure, to the other four members of the board and discuss the possibility.
Reder noted that they were open to suggestions from the community which is why they are having these Board/Community Dialogues throughout the bond process and said that it was important that they speak to each other "neighbor to neighbor," and reminded those gathered that by raising Plainedge taxes, the board is raising their own taxes. She stated, "It's really in the community's hands ... It's a high number that's hard to swallow. I think it's going to be difficult but I think it's the right thing to do."