In addition to reviewing the facilities plan in terms of both saving money and program at the BOE meeting held on Saturday, Jan. 13, board members confronted what is possibly the most important issue of all: What dollar amount would the voters be most likely to approve for a facilities bond? Or in other words, what number will get them 51 percent of the vote? The discussion of this issue and possible options to consider was interesting and important, albeit without resolution just yet. However, the meeting ended on a bad note because of an altercation Board President Richard Sussman had with some community members in the audience.
There are many issues imbedded in coming up with a "magic number" at which the bond will be approved by the community.
One question is: Is this the way to go? To find "a" plan that fits a dollar figure rather than a good plan that fits enrollment and serves program. Or-Is it best to have some things done rather than have nothing done?
Most board members seem to feel that the community would approve a $50 million bond. They speculate that parents who voted no last year to an $87 million bond are now experiencing the impact of the increased enrollment and therefore may be more inclined to vote yes this time.
Perhaps too, as Alan Baer stated, if a $32 million bond, claiming to do what the $87 million bond was supposed to do, is not offered to the public, as it was by two sitting board members last spring, voters may approve a larger bond.
However, attempting to find $15 million to cut out of the $64.5 million proposal raises problems and critical questions, especially when the educators appear to be firm in their lists of expansions/renovations that are absolutely necessary. Several stated that their requests are at the "bare bones" level already. (Also to be considered is the possibility of the bond being defeated if the parents and educators, who are the most likely to advocate for the bond, don't feel it's satisfactory.)
What can be cut? What can be considered an enhancement?... classrooms, library/media centers, rooms for the art programs or support services. (Dr. Barish noted that when the enrollment reaches its peak at the high school, 45 new faculty members, including administrators, guidance counselors, psychologists, speech therapists, etc., will also need more space and/or offices.)
And, in terms of equity, how can board members determine which students should be served first--- the talented, needy or average student. Obviously, these are overwhelmingly difficult decisions to make.
Assuming that the board was able to cut $15 million, a few board members suggested offering options on the bond referendum: a "base" bond of $50 million and an "enhanced" one at $64.5 million.
Board member Robert Ferro said that he wants to put one figure out to the community and let it decide, noting that he didn't want an "enhancement" bond.
Alan Baer said he would rather have the bond fail than put out a "bad" plan. His hope is that if the bond fails this time, the voters will be in for an "awakening" in another year or so when class size in the first grade will be 25-27 and in the second grade 32, in addition to programs being cut because of lack of space in the district. At that point, he believes, voters will then approve the funds for an adequate plan.
Board member Peter Wezenaar disagreed with Mr. Baer. He doesn't believe that there will be a "ground swell of indignation" in the next few years if a large-scale plan isn't implemented. His belief is that the voters will continue to vote against future bonds, which dollar amounts he feels will progressively decline ("$87, then $62, then ?").
Mr. Baer commented that if there isn't a "ground swell," people, who paid $400,000, $500,000 and $600,000 for their homes to be part of a great school system, will be leaving town
Then Mr. Baer asked his fellow board members if they had any suggestions for cuts. No one replied. (However, it should be noted that the board agreed to evaluate the possibility of not opening Salem as an elementary school, which at a guestimate is about a $5- $6 mil. potential savings ... however this alteration to the plan may have major ramifications.)
To complicate matters more, if the long-term bond fails, the short-term solutions included in the referendum will not be possible. Moreover, these short-term solutions, a total of 12 portables, are needed to accommodate the incoming enrollment for September, which is the largest in the district in 25 years.
The alternative of offering three choices on the referendum was bandied about by board members. These would include a (#1) $50 mil. bond, (#2)$64.5 mil. bond and (#3) $2-$3 mil. just to cover the short term solutions. (It was suggested that a vote for #1 or #2 automatically include a yes vote for #3.)
This led to a discussion of "voter psychology." Julie Meyer and Peter Wezenaar said that they feared that voters would naturally vote for the least expensive option. (Board members also fear that with the prospect of a recession looming on the horizon, voters may be more inclined to spend less.) Resident Robin Schroeder also commented that the board should be seven-0 behind the bond or else it is doomed to fail. To have 7 members behind a $50 mil. bond and a 4-3 split behind a $64.5 million bond or supporting a bond that separates the short term from the long term one would affect its chance to succeed.
When asked what would happen if the bond didn't succeed, Dr. Inserra responded the district will be looking at increased class size, cuts in, or diminishment, of program and possibly split sessions.
With all of the issues and concerns, which seem to bump up against each other, the facilities plan is indeed a conundrum. While the board has been seriously rolling up its sleeves to find solutions, it still seems an impossible task to find a workable solution. All of them want to put out a good plan that will pass, and don't want to have to go back to the community in a few years to ask for more money.
Further board discussion will take place over the next few weeks.
A few times during the meeting Board President Richard Sussman personally insulted members of the audience, engaging in name calling at times.
Then, at the end of the meeting, during the time allotted for community input, the first person to speak was Nancy Cowles. As she was challenging the plan for not including enough classrooms based on the number of grade level sections, as opposed to straight enrollment, Mr. Sussman interrupted her by saying that her two minutes to speak was almost up. Mrs. Cowles said that she had other things to say too. (Afterwards she commented that Mr. Sussman allows some residents to speak beyond the two minutes allotted by the rules.)
Mr. Sussman then abruptly said, "I'm adjourning the meeting." Mr. Baer told him he had to do it correctly.
Mr. Sussman put on his coat and as audience members asked him if he could unilaterally adjourn a meeting, he petulantly shouted "I can do whatever I want," to a stunned audience of citizens.
As he was departing, others concurred with Mrs. Cowles, noting that Mr. Sussman has, for a while now, been engaging in "selective enforcement" of the rules, both for board members and members of the audience. They added that his enforcement of the rules seems to depend on whether he likes the individual and/or what they're saying.
They were also horrified by the "mean" and "uncouth" nature of his personal attacks on people.
Board Vice-President Robert Ferro took over the meeting, as he should have, according to Robert's Rules of Order. The rest of the board remained and listened to four other audience members share their opinions and ideas with them. The meeting was then properly adjourned with a motion from a board member, a second and then a vote from board members.
After the meeting, one person in the audience commented sarcastically, yet despairingly, "now we're following Richard's Rules of Disorder."