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Opinion

(Ed.'s note: The following letter was sent to the Board of Education and reprinted here at the writer's request.)

I was extremely pleased with the progress at the Jan. 4 meeting, specifically the approval of the board's long-term facilities plan. While much detail work remains to be accomplished, the board can once again begin to focus on and target their primary objective, the district's long-term educational plan.

Dr. Inserra's presentation addressed the extent to which the district had under-invested in the 1970s/80s/90s and has as a result settled dangerously behind the educational power curve. The district is burdened with what is largely a 1960s infrastructure in some disrepair, and is thus unable to support year 2000 volumetric and curriculum demands, let alone what is yet to come in terms of higher enrollments and deeper mandates.

Adopting the board's plan would ensure that new and revitalized facilities support our faculty's efforts, not compromise them, going forward.

Unfortunately and ironically, given its headline claim of "no back room deals," we also saw the emergence of a long-awaited, attempted ambush. The character and quality of this alternative plan (side show) was somewhere in the range of shell game, numerical torture and outright intellectually dishonest. To say the plan lacked credibility would be a vast understatement.

Those in attendance listened carefully to both presentations the other evening, out of respect for each group's effort. I would urge everyone to go back and review Dr. Inserra's presentation of the approved plan on the district website. After listening to the line-by-line and room-by-room discussions of each building's space and build-out at the public sessions, and after making a number of comments in the process, I believe I have an understanding of each plan's underlying assumptions.

Debate is appropriate during the planning process, when backed up by intelligent argument. Through points made, it can improve the overall outcome. By the same token, it is now time to advance the approved plan. I have no time for the slipshod ambush we were treated to the other evening, especially when it makes ridiculous claims and creates unrealistic expectations among those unable to see through the veneer. There was little surprise when the plan began to self-destruct under the light of the following, public Q&A period.

While I would like to think we could focus 100 percent of board and community efforts on moving forward, we will unfortunately have to devote time and effort to illuminating and extinguishing the unrealistic expectations created by this shameful charade.

Based on a review of one school I know quite well, Sousa, it is quite clear the plan lacks any credibility, whatsoever. The authors' simplistic, capacity calculations and resulting space requirements for a K-6 remake of Sousa are unrealistic in light of present conditions (it is overtaxed, considering only K-5), real world curriculum, teaching approaches, known and expected mandates. Examination of every other district facility would likely result in similar observations.

The bottom line is that the community must not be misled by this simplistic, non-specific, wholesale, commodity approach to what must be a detailed, specific, individualized and inclusive facilities plan. The approved BOE plan meets these specific requirements; the alternative does not. It is thus no alternative at all, and its authors have done the community a great disservice to suggest otherwise.

The sense of the community present at the meeting is they are tired of the purposeless divisiveness represented by the alternative plan. The audience was unwilling to accept a planning premise that serves only to preserve inequities and apply a fresh veneer to aging infrastructure. It is absolutely my sense that most people in the community who have carefully considered the issue realize that our school facilities require significant investment now, due to decades of deferral and due to increased enrollment projections that no one now disputes. Those that have considered the matter realize that the alternative is simply less, not the equal of the approved BOE plan, and certainly not more, as claimed.

The authors' liberal use of F.U.D., (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) techniques to promote their position is reprehensible. Their failure to identify all their plan's shortcomings vis a vis the approved plan makes this a fruit vs. vegetables comparison, not an intellectually honest, apples to apples, heads up comparison.

Let's be frank, the requirements and plan vetting process have already been accomplished. It is that process which resulted in the approved BOE plan. All said and done, delivering comparable educational facilities and capabilities, any comparable plan will approach $87 MM.

While $87 MM is significant, how little PW school district capital has been bonded cumulatively, since 1960? 1970? 1980? 1990? Compared to Nassau? Compared with other nationally recognized districts? The historical failure to invest isn't this board's fault, but I will and I expect many others certainly will take Messrs. Zimmerman and Sussman to task if they plan to interfere further with voter approval of the plan approved by the BOE.

Why apply for (less) state aid on an inadequate plan, when we can preserve 28 percent state aid on most of a needed $87 MM? This is not, as some have stated, a case of preserving 10 percent state aid (on what is clearly an inadequate plan), it is a case of irresponsibly risking 28 percent aid on the approved BOE plan. If they wish to continue to interfere, Messrs. Zimmerman and Sussman should be asked whether they plan to post a bond for the loss of $24 MM -- 28 percent of $87 MM.

There is no avoiding the dilemma we face: creating an appropriate near-term and future educational framework for our children. We know projected enrollments, existing facilities (and present shortfalls), educational approaches, class sizes, regulatory mandates and support requirements. We know that as we ponder this issue today, our children are being educated and/or counseled in converted closets, storage rooms, hallways and other inappropriate and inefficient spaces, not to mention inequitably, across facilities.

The fact is that our present school facilities actively conspire to challenge our administration's and our faculty's abilities to structure and deliver a quality education to Port Washington's children.

Against this backdrop, the majority within the BOE has derived an approved plan that addresses present shortfalls and future space requirements, reintroduces equity across facilities and accommodates needed flexibility to meet future mandates.

By contrast, what is being proposed as a backup plan actually means radically different planning assumptions. A different plan, with different assumptions, different outcomes, delivering different educational plant and capabilities; a fundamentally different plan. In this case, a fundamentally poorer plan, an inadequate plan, an unacceptable plan, a plan that perpetuates inequities that have evolved over the years, a plan that does not meet the needs of the community or our children.

My sense, and that of many others, including apparently, the majority of the B0E, is that the community realizes that it cannot continue to engage in Band-Aid solutions that inevitably force Port Washington's school facilities to fall further behind. It cannot permit what is at best a band aid approach to be sold as a worthy alternative.

We need the proposed level of investment, we needed it years ago, and we must give it the best chance of being approved now. To do otherwise is counter-productive on the operating side of the budget (which Sussman and Zimmerman are always quick to criticize). A failure to invest means we will be forced to waste time and operating budget trying to counteract the age and inappropriateness of our existing facilities.

The best backup plan Sussman and Zimmerman can offer the community is to acknowledge the shortcomings inherent to their inadequate and failing alternative, they should dismiss their plan and thereby eliminate the possibility that it will be confused with the BOE's acceptable, workable, approved plan.

It is time for Zimmerman and Sussman to join the majority in finalizing the approved plan, then to apply their diligent project management skills as needed. Failing this, they should resign, or the community should demand their recall.

Robert W. Mann, Jr.


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