Hundreds of Plainedge residents turned out for the community summit at the high school on Tuesday night for what turned into nearly four hours of presentations, questions and comments regarding the district's plan to put up a bond referendum to build a new middle school.
The president of the Plainedge School Board, Josephine Reder opened the summit by thanking everyone for taking the time to attend, stating that it was very gratifying for her, the other board members and the superintendent, Dr. John Richman, to see how many people turned out to show their interest in what was happening in the school district. She went on to say that the summit was a continuation of the Board/Community Dialogues that the district has been holding regarding the bond, because, Reder said, "This is still a work in progress."
Richman noted that the board and administration have been actively working together to put together a plan for the middle school for the last seven months. Although the district first sent out a survey to residents in March 1998 about what should be done with the middle school and the residents' consensus was that something needed to be done, the district did not plan on putting forth a bond proposal so quickly until they found out in late August that the state was offering an additional 10 percent incentive in state aid for districts that passed a bond by July 31, bringing the aid ratio up to 65 percent. The district fears if they do not pass a bond by the cutoff not only will they loss that 10 percent incentive but the aid may actually go down below 55 percent because so many districts have floated bonds under this incentive.
The superintendent then explained to those gathered why the district decided to build at the Northedge site rather than renovating Packard. He explained that although the district had originally considered renovating Packard they discovered that the cost of renovating rather than rebuilding would not be that much of a savings and by rebuilding the middle school they could gain a lot of the educational tools that have been deemed necessary because of the increasing educational standards such as additional classroom space, science labs, technology labs, and more. There was then such an outcry from the community about the proposal to build at the Packard site that the board reconsidered and decided, instead, to add on to the Northedge site. Richman stressed that the figures he had were only estimates but thinks that to do the work that needs to be done to put a middle school at the Northedge site and to build kindergarten classrooms at the elementary schools which would be needed to replace the kindergarten classes which are currently housed at Northedge and to do some other renovations at the district's schools, would require a bond of approximately $50 million, $40 million of which would go toward the new middle school.
The district has chosen Wiedersum Associates as the architect for whatever work is ultimately done. Representatives from the architectural firm were on hand to present their proposals for the schools and to answer any questions. Reder noted that the district has been associated with Wiedersum Associates, which specializes in educational architecture, for 15 years and have come to trust the work they do.
Rick Wiedersum presented rough drawings of the plans they have developed for the three elementary schools and the new middle school. He noted that the main goal at the elementary schools was to create space for the kindergarten rooms, while maximizing the amount of state aid reimbursement the district can receive.
At the Eastplain School, the plans include the addition of four kindergarten rooms and a media center. The existing library will house the resource room and the health suite.
Charles E. Schwarting School is slated to have the addition of six kindergarten rooms and a media center. The existing library will house small group instruction and a special education room.
The plans for John H. West School include the addition of six kindergarten rooms, a library media center and an additional classroom. The kindergarten play area will be relocated to the area where the classrooms will be added.
The district recently discovered that it is mandated to add elevators at both Schwarting and West to make those schools handicapped accessible. The cost of these elevators is approximately $500,000 which the district had not figured on.
Wiedersum Associates' plans for the middle school, at the Northedge site, is for a three story building. The building will be in a horseshoe configuration for the three floors, with two wings jutting out on the first floor for the gymnasium on one side and the auditorium on another side. The auditorium wing will also include space for music, band, orchestra and chorus rooms. The classrooms will be located in the horseshoe part of the first floor, which is currently intended to be for the sixth grade. The second floor will contain science rooms and some of the special rooms required for the seventh and eighth grades, according to Wiedersum. The third floor is presently designated as the seventh and eighth grade floor and is slated to have classrooms for those grades. There will also be designated special education classrooms.
Wiedersum noted that one aspect of the design that is particularly favorable is the separate wings for the gymnasium and the auditorium. He explained that those wings can be opened after school and on weekends for various functions and the classroom portion of the building can be closed off.
Following the presentation by the architects, the floor was opened up for questions from the audience.
The first question which was raised was regarding the students who will be attending Northedge and how they will be affected by the construction. The superintendent explained that from Sept. 2000-June 2001 the district will still be planning at that site and the students will not be affected and will not be because by the time the construction is begun at Northedge the kindergartners will be moved to their home elementary schools.
Several residents questioned the amount of money being proposed and wanted to know if those were fixed costs. It was explained that currently the costs were estimates and they would be more concrete by the time the final bond amount was determined. Once a bond was set at a specific figure the district could not surpass that amount.
Another concern that was raised was that under the plan for the new middle school there would be no planetarium which is currently housed at Packard Middle School. Many residents felt that was a real loss to the district and should be reconsidered. The board and administration explained that the $400,000 it would take to build a new planetarium would be too much and noted that a larger concern was the loss of the preschool and theater at the Northedge site. Reder noted that they are currently looking to find another location within the district for those because they bring more revenue to the district than the planetarium does. She also noted that the preschool provides a real service to working parents within the district.
Residents were also concerned that if the Packard building is demolished, as planned, it would be too easy for the district to sell that property. Others felt that the building should be left in case there is another population increase. Some of these same residents also were concerned that the district had a demographic study that only looked 10 years in the future and felt that they may have to come back in another 15 years to get another bond if they discover that the work that is done now is not enough to prepare the district for several decades in the future. The superintendent noted that they are currently looking to keep part of the Packard building, possibly the gymnasium, because it would provide additional athletic space, and it is possible the state would aid the demolition of the rest of the building if part of the existing building is maintained.
Many people were concerned that Wiedersum Associates had been chosen as the architects without any other firms being contacted for estimates. Many residents stated that if they were doing construction on their own homes they would get at least two or three estimates before choosing a firm.
Toward the end of the summit, after many people left, one resident noted that the board was going about the presentation the wrong way, that they really hadn't presented what the district would get for the $50 million. He also pointed out that in the presentation the board never explained that the architects would have to go out to bid on each of the components of the project and that they would not be doing the construction themselves. The superintendent responded to this by adding that the district was required, by the state education department to have several different bids and the project will have four primary contractors. The resident noted that if it were made clear that Wiedersum Associates would not be the only firm involved in this project and that the project itself would be put out to bid then people might not be as upset about the fact that the district only got one estimate for an architectural firm.
There were several heated moments during the summit and many residents expressed the belief that as it currently stands the bond would not pass if it is put up in June. In the end, the superintendent and board acknowledged that they could not please everyone and that the residents just had to look at their options and vote based on what they felt was in the best interests of the children and the community.