After countless hours of discussion, study, and collaborative efforts between the board of education, the superintendent of schools, administrators, principals, teachers, community members, the Spector Group architectural firm, and Turner Construction, the school facilities plan -- in its almost-final form -- was presented to the public on Tuesday, Jan. 23, to gather feedback from the community. Though there were some objections from community members to some components, the overriding public sentiment expressed seemed to be the desire to pass a bond to improve school facilities, and to do so, as soon as possible. With the school board acting to make some additional cuts near the meeting's end, the total cost of the plan, though not yet finalized, hovered in the $65 million range.
Saying "It is time to act, as a community and as a school district, and get this project done," Superintendent Al Inserra turned the program over to Michael Spector and Michael Mannetta, the District's architects. They proceeded to present a detailed plan of renovations and additions to the schools in the District, including reopening the Salem school. Key features include additional classrooms in nearly every building, additional parking areas, improved technology, new restrooms meeting Americans with Disabilities Act standards, and relieving Campus Drive traffic by opening up vehicle access, behind Weber, to Bogart Avenue. Also in the plan are cafeteria renovations, special education adjustments, and gymnasium upgrades or additions. (The specific plans for each building are described in a separate article in this issue.) The architects also made clear that much time was spent on creating a safe environment during construction. The facilities plan addresses both short-term or immediate needs, as well as long-term ones.
When it came to public comments, many remarked that while it had some shortcomings, the plan was satisfactory -- and much needed. "This might not have what everyone wants," said Jeff Goldman, "but we hope the community recognizes that no plan is perfect." Echoing these ideas, Marcie Zak stated, "While this bond could have more, it can't have less ... reach out to your neighbors and stress that if we want quality education, we need this bond to pass." Another community member had the same view. "This bond is not perfect (I'll always be an advocate of K to 6) .. but we must do what works for the majority ... I hope we can move forward. We need better facilties for our schools." And another community member, after thanking the BOE for their labors, said, "This community needs a bond, and needs it to pass. If we don't vote for it, our children will suffer."
Others in the audience at Schreiber H.S. addressed what they believed were significant flaws. Robin Schroeder felt that inequity between elementary schools "was being built into the plan," in which some schools were getting far more space and others, far less. SEPTA co-president Larry Greenstein called 600 square feet for special ed children "Inadequate." The "inability of a handicapped child to reach any level in Daly" except the main level, was an objection voiced by Star Anthony. Former school board member Nancy Cowles said that though she would really like "to come here and say I can back this bond," she, instead, "asks for better value." She too felt the plan for the elementary schools was not equitable. Mrs. Cowles also suggested making five schools, eliminating rooms of 600 square feet, and placing special education at Sousa and Guggenheim. Dr. Alyssa Graf's concern was the Salem school. Saying it was an "expensive project, " she urged the BOE to "scrap the Salem project...and build a new school or build additions." In reply to a question about student safety during construction from Ezra Delaney, school board president Richard Sussman said that each school will have a committee that includes parents, and a site-safety plan. Jim Cowles, who recognized the Spector Group as talented and creative, was nonetheless critical of the plan. "This board, this administration is not doing what is needed," he commented.
Some were concerned not about the plan but about unanimous board support.
Addressing the school board, parent Amy Levinson said, "We did hear six say yes the other night. If you are going to cut [the plan], the community must know ... If you aren't going to be unanimous, we aren't going to have a bond."
Sussman pressed the board members to hold another commmunity forum, "to hear from community people without kids in the school district ... We haven't gotten the full community input yet." But due to a variety of issues, such as adequate time to announce and hold another forum prior to the BOE vote on Tuesday, Jan. 30, the idea was defeated.
The school board did vote to make additional cuts in the plan, reducing the overall cost by $1.735 million. They voted to omit a proposed new student union area at Schreiber H.S., eliminate a new underground Weber gym station and instead extend the existing gym to create two stations. In addition, the board of education opted to change one item in the Salem school to minor renovations of two lower level classrooms, and lastly, supported reducing the size of new classrooms at the elementary and secondary school levels, with the new size still meeting State Education Department recommendations. Some would be 770 square feet.
Further cuts might be realized in relation to boiler work, as suggested by board member Julie Meyer. School board VP Bob Ferro also raised the issue of air conditioning, commenting that "we will need it." The board seemed to favor including air conditioning in an auxiliary bond. When the board voted on cutting these above-mentioned items, there were six votes in favor of the reductions (as well as placing air conditioning in a secondary bond); Sussman did not support this motion. "I'm opposed to the reductions," he said. "With these reductions, did we win you over?" asked board member Peter Wezenaar, "... I haven't heard you say 'yes'. "At the last BOE meeting, I said I'm going to vote for it," asserted Sussman. "If I don't think it's going to pass, I'm not going to break my neck campaigning for it."
Sussman then added, "I wish you'd stop telling people I said I'd vote no - unless The Port News is printing that ..." This was one of several barbed remarks directed toward this newspaper that he made throughout the meeting.