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Trustees of the Port Washington Board of Education used their last meeting of the year 2001 to give a school tax exemption to qualified low-income senior citizens with school-age children, welcome a new district director of technology, announce dates for two of three public forums to discuss redistricting, refer an attorney-communications policy back to committee, debate modular classroom bids, and accept a $19,000 settlement in a law suit.

The law suit ended favorably after years of litigation that began when a contractor demanded $100,000 from the Port school district. During the December 18 meeting at Schreiber High School the board approved a settlement with Graham Architectural Products Corp. in which the school district will pay $19,000 and receive in return a similar value in custom window parts to allow the district to make repairs to windows now in use.

School Board President Richard Sussman noted after the meeting that the settlement was good news and said, "This is the last of the big construction scandal of '93."

During the meeting, Board President Sussman raised a policy issue concerning how board members work with the school district's attorney, a matter currently under review by the policy committee.

Sussman provided two draft policies. One stated that if a matter is beyond the attorney's retainer agreement, the entire board must be notified within 24 hours. The other draft required that when a board member wants to discuss a matter with the school district's attorney and it is likely to be outside the retainer agreement, the communication with the attorney must be made through the board president.

Board Trustee Laura Mogul said, "I'd rather have it spelled out that the board attorney is required to notify the school board before doing work that is outside the retainer."

Trustee Jonathan Zimmerman said, "I'm in favor of keeping the policy the way it is." He said he might not object to the policy of notification of the entire board within 24 hours of the initial communication with the attorney, if that policy applied to the president of the board, too.

After debating those and other policy possibilities, the board decided to ask its policy committee to continue considering options and make proposals to the board at a future meeting.

Also on the agenda, the board passed an exemption from school taxes for seniors with school age children, provided the family income falls below certain levels on a sliding scale.

In an interview after the board meeting, Assistant Superintendent for Business Mary Callahan explained that criteria for the senior-citizen exemption may be learned by contacting the office of the County Tax Assessor. Until now, Port Washington seniors who might otherwise be exempt from school taxes were required to pay those taxes if they had a child currently in the Port Washington school system. This program is separate from the STAR program, Callahan pointed out.

Addressing a list of personnel matters, the school board stopped to welcome David Baylen as the new director of technology, replacing Mark Steinberger who had been with the district more than five years and had accepted a position in Jericho. Baylen arrives in Port from the Sayville school district. The agenda listed Baylen's salary at $110,000. He will oversee a staff responsible for technology programs and purchase of hardware and software for the district.

The board also approved naming Edward Sallie as deputy district clerk for the 2001-2002 school year.

Focusing briefly on drawing of new school boundaries, Dr. Albert Inserra, school superintendent, announced that two Community Forums had been arranged to discuss redistricting, which is needed before opening of a fifth elementary school, Salem School in the fall of 2003. The forums will be January 9 at Our Lady of Fatima Church and January 27 at the Elks Club. A third forum is likely to be held between the dates for those two meetings, and has been tentatively set for January 16. Interested parties may call the school district administration at 767-4329.

When the topic moved to modular classroom bids, board members offered their most elaborate discussion of the evening. The trustees reached an impasse after debate touched off by board member Jonathan Zimmerman, who simply asked for an explanation of the bids for work related to constructing modular classrooms at Manorhaven and Guggenheim elementary schools. The board was being asked to vote on whether to accept the bids. These bids were for proposed work by Frendolph Construction Corp. of West Babylon, which submitted a low bid of $1,442,075 for the modular classroom project, and by Hirsch & Company of Hicksville with a low bid of $117,543 for related plumbing construction.

If the work is done when children occupy the buildings, Board President Sussman explained, the law says a temporary egress, or exit, must be built. This would mean expensive electrical and plumbing routing. If the work is done in the summer, however, there could be a cost savings in the neighborhood of $70,000 to $80,000.

Board Trustee Nancy Cowles commented, "If we intended to or not, we have changed the scope of the bid."

Board President Sussman advised accepting the current bids and then issuing a change order to accommodate the effort to save money. His concern was that the modular classrooms might not be ready by next September. The administration would have to draw up new specifications, advertise and screen new bids.

Addressing the issue of whether the same construction companies would throw their hats into the ring again, School Board Trustee Julie Meyer said, "We shouldn't feel we're being held hostage because this person may not bid again."

Sussman pointed out that as a construction company executive himself he realizes that these bids were low and that if given the opportunity to bid again, the bids may jump higher, eliminating any cost savings.

"I don't buy into that," objected Meyer. "The contractors had numbers for the egress in their figures. Now they're doing less work because they're not building that temporary egress."

Cowles said, "We're already building in a delay because we're allowing portables to be delivered later." She noted, "There would be money saved in the electrical and plumbing contracts without the egress."

Sussman underscored his view: "I think you guys are kidding yourselves. The contractor isn't that stupid. He knows he left $200,000 on the table the last time and he isn't going to make that mistake again."

Board President Sussman said that if the bids are accepted and change orders are issued, "The contractor has no choice. He has to substantiate the price. He'll take off the list the $70,000 for the egress as it is."

Trustee Meyer said the project appears to be currently over budget and she was skeptical about the contractors agreeing to the full dollar savings because, she said, "They'll have expenses." Apparently expenses might be deducted from the savings.

Sussman pressed, saying, "We tell him this is what you have to do and this is the price. If it isn't what the contractor wants, he has to fight us. I know they're sitting there figuring right now how much more they're going to get (if the jobs are put up for bids again)."

Trustee Mogul asked, "Aren't we in the legal position of having subverted the point of the bid?"

Cowles added, "I'm highly concerned we're going to be accused of shenanigans. We should have thought this through to begin with."

Board President Sussman countered, "I never said I'm going to issue a change order after the bid. The board would vote on it. The board has the ability to approve the contract and then issue a change order. We have the obligation to see the bid is in on time." Sussman pointed out, "We had only three bids here."

Board Vice President Robert Ferro pointed out that the difference between the low bid by Frendolph Construction was around $176,000 lower than the next bid. In other words, the egress might add approximately $80,000 to the modular classrooms project, but the savings when comparing the lowest bid to the next bid was almost twice as much as the cost of the egress. Ferro said, "So, if we had them put in the egress, we are still lower, and we wouldn't have any legal problems and we're still ahead."

Speaking of accepting the bid, Cowles said, "You're right. It probably would avoid the legal problem. However, it does disrupt the school at the end of the school year."

Trustee Peter Wezenaar said requiring another round of bids on these projects might put the board in a bad position.

Ultimately, the seven member board divided into Wezenaar, Sussman and Ferro favoring the bids for the modular classroom contracts and Meyer, Mogul, Cowles and Zimmerman voting against, kicking the matter back to the administration to request new bids.

During public comments, Joe D'Alonzo, vice president of Cow Bay Contractors of Port Washington, warned the board that more should be done to encourage bidders. He would bid on additional projects if he felt the projects were more open.

The next meeting of the Port Washington Board of Education is to be 8 p.m. January 8 at Daly Elementary School.


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