In a meeting filled with rancorous exchanges, the BOE clarified the issue of whether the school district could have multiple long-range facilities plans, each with different price tags. Apparently, simultaneous submissions ¬ submitting more than one plan to the State Education Department at the same time, even if one is a primary program and another is a back-up ¬ is not permitted. However, the State Education Department (SED) does accept sequential submissions. This means that should the current plan, totaling approximately $87 million, be voted down by the public, another plan can be submitted to the SED and then presented to the community, as a second referendum. But there is a catch: all voting, whether there is one referendum or two, must be completed before July 1, 2000, or the District risks losing about $5 million in state aid. Over the strong recommendations of BOE members Richard Sussman and John Zimmerman, who advocated moving the vote to early May to allow the community to vote on a second plan should the first plan be defeated, the majority of the BOE agreed that not enough time existed to develop a sound alternate plan. The present plan, they asserted, was painstakingly crafted with the input of the community, educators, and experts, and should be the focus of the upcoming vote.
BOE members Sussman and Zimmerman had called for a special session of the BOE, preceding the regular meeting, to discuss the alternative plan and moving up the date of the vote to permit a second referendum on school facilities , if necessary, before July 1. Mr. Zimmerman stated, "There seems to have been a campaign of misinformation delivered to the community about whether we could have a second vote or not." A conference call between an SED official, Mr. Zimmerman, Mr. Sussman, and the Superintendent, Dr. Albert Inserra, clarified that a second vote was possible if SED guidelines were followed. What troubled Mr. Zimmerman was "information that appeared in the Port News, The Sentinel, and distributed at BOE and PTA meetings, that made it appear we couldn't have a second vote. I believe this is false. I don't see much effort made to correct the information." He added, "We only have a second vote if the BOE agrees to the timetable established by the SED. To do this, the first vote must be moved up two weeks to allow for a 45-day waiting period before the second vote, as required by NYS law. The BOE must allow a back-up plan to be put on the ballot, and not window-dressing."
Responding to Mr. Zimmerman's comments, Dr. Inserra explained that the statements given in a Feb. 17 Port News article referred just to having the SED review two plans simultaneously. (Indeed, the February article stated, "...the superintendent's office asked the SED their opinion of submitting two plans." The written response was "The office of Facilities Planning will only accept and review one long-range plan from the school district.") "There is no dispute about whether the BOE could put up a second bond referendum in the face of a defeated one," Dr.Inserra added. "I believe the public wanted to know whether we could have a second option, a choice," Mr.Zimmerman stated. "The information presented to the community led them to believe they couldn't have a choice, and that is wrong."
But the current $87 million facilities plan is an issue that sharply divides the BOE into proponents and opponents. BOE Vice President Sandy Ehrlich forcefully asserted that "we don't have a second plan. We have a very bad idea masquerading as a second plan. People all over have urged us not to consider it under any circumstances." She proceeded to defend the current proposal. "The question is whether we should pour time, money, and resources into a second plan, after having an appropriate plan, the one the BOE feels is the educationally responsible plan for the entire community...We must first give a fair hearing to the first plan." But Mr. Sussman was quick to disagree. "We have an obligation to give the community what they want. We can't just do what you want...Let's move up the date for the first vote, so we can have a second vote if the first fails, and save $5 million in state aid," he answered. Mr. Zimmerman maintained that "the fact that we have spent hours developing a plan is irrelevant if we haven't really developed something that has reached a broad consensus throughout our community." Each side claimed they had widespread support for their stance.
"It is time to act. We have been at this for 2 _ years, to achieve a balance for this and future generations of kids...I am proud of our Intel semifinalists and finalists, our AP scholars, and the like, but I am also so proud, at graduation, to see kids who struggled to get a high school diploma, and we were there for them. I am extremely impressed with the Alternative High School students, who also struggled, and have been successful. Excellence must be for all children, not just the top of our class," said Dr. Inserra with strong emotion. Turning his attention to the middle school, he added, "Grades 6 to 8 is the right alternative for this district. Research is particularly clear that academically-in-need children don't do well when you provide less than three years in one school, because they thrive when relationships are solid." Addressing those critical of a middle school that has a projected enrollment of 1200 students, the superintendent said, "Educationally, this is the right plan. Smaller would have been better but we can't achieve it all. We'll have to make it work through our staff and programs but give our kids the right setting to do that."
Mr.Sussman, though, disagreed, saying he could not find any evidence that said a larger middle school was advantageous.
An emotionally-charged, fierce exchange began when Mr. Sussman asked to formulate a resolution on changing the bond voting date to early May, to make a second vote possible. Dr. Nelson responded that it could not be done as the agenda had already been adopted. Clearly angered, Mr. Zimmerman jumped into the exchange, asking whether the misrepresentation would be corrected. Dr. Inserra explained that the "ability to vote twice would require the BOE authorizing a bond vote no later than March 14, so a vote could be held on May 2." He then elaborated on a number of steps that would have to be accomplished in the shorter time frame, like the BOE immediately filing the appropriate paperwork, resolving the few remaining minor issues with the current plan, having the bond council put the resolution into appropriate language, and developing the alternative plan fully. "These are optimistic timelines," he added.
Dr.Nelson, BOE president, added his doubts. "I don't know how that can be accomplished in seven days." "All this work could have been started a few months ago, when we first brought it up," said Mr. Sussman. He maintained that it was feasible, citing an uncomplicated SED form, for instance.
An opening comment from a community member urged the board to include an alternative plan, and to hold the referendum earlier than proposed. Later, the public commentary became quite heated. As Mr. Cowles criticized two BOE members for "not making a contribution" to the current plan, he was admonished by Dr. Nelson. Another resident was angered at Mr. Zimmerman in particular for trying to separate himself from other BOE members when the BOE was elected to work together as a team. Perhaps the fiercest exchange occurred when Pam Goldman expressed comments critical of Mr. Zimmerman's alternate plan, which she called "ridiculous." She was interrupted by Mr. Zimmerman and it escalated into a shouting match. "Don't waste my time to discuss a plan in which the community, principals, teachers, have not had input," said Ms. Goldman. Ellen Ginsburg asked whether the BOE would consider having noncontroversial items of the plan listed separately, on which the community could vote independently. She noted some changes were needed urgently, given rising enrollments.
"I wrote the BOE, asking for a five year projection of the tax impact of the total cost of expanding the schools, including the bond and personnel costs," explained Jeffrey Oring. "It is upsetting that the BOE proposed a bond without doing the numbers-crunching." He also found it disconcerting to see a 7 percent school budget increase this year. "In the 1990s, the General Council passed a resolution asking the BOE to come up with a five year plan. We are thinking of re-instituting this resolution," he added.
Peter Meyer reminded the BOE that costs were likely to rise for the community's residents, even without the bond. "Try to work with Mr. Sussman and Mr.Zimmerman to reduce the amount we are spending," he suggested . "Working people are gong to have to move out of town." Another member of the public concurred, asking the BOE, "Why are we turning away from these two gentlemen (Mr. Sussman and Mr. Zimmerman) offering an alternative?"
Dr. Nelson announced that he, Sandy Ehrlich, and Nancy Cowles were all seeking re-election. "There is important work to be done," he said. Discord erupted as Dr. Nelson continued to discuss their candidacy. "Is this a campaign speech? You can't do this at a BOE meeting!" exclaimed Mr. Sussman and Mr. Zimmerman. 'Given the objections, we'll move on," answered Dr.Nelson.
BOE member Nancy Cowles pressed the BOE for a public hearing on the facilities plan. "Even as late as March 21, I would like to hold a public meeting. We need to receive public feedback." she said. Other BOE members and some members of the community disagreed, believing that sufficient opportunities had been given for the community to comment on the plan.
Mr. Sussman asked to add a resolution to the agenda, calling for the District to buy textbooks for 6th grade students and 7. He asked that the purchase orders be written in three weeks. Though seconded by Mr. Zimmerman, the vote of 5 against, 2 in favor, defeated the item.
A second motion was also defeated. Mr. Sussman explained that he had never received answers from the architect to questions he submitted regarding a fence at Weber. He suggested withholding payment if the answers were not provided, but the motion was defeated in a vote of 2 in favor, 5 opposed.
The second half of the March 7 BOE meeting, which primarily covered safety and scheduling plans during facilities construction, will be discussed in next week's issue.