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Facilities Maintenance and Polling Places Focus of BOE

The Dec. 1 Board of Education meeting focused on facilities maintenance, and whether the district should continue using four polling places at election time.

Since James Ristano took over as Director of Facilities and Operations one-and-a-half years ago, he has made a concerted effort to complete projects around the district using in-house staff as much as possible. Sometimes he even uses in-house materials, as when bleachers from the old track were recycled into a handball wall at Daly Elementary.

Many other corners of the school district’s one million square feet and 200 acres are also looking better…as at Guggenheim, where walls were painted and two rooms made out of one; at Sousa, where asbestos floor tiles were removed over the summer; at Schreiber, where staff built furniture for the new Mac Lab and where they also removed a veritable forest of poison ivy from a portable behind the building; and the bathroom in the girls’ locker room at Weber. District workers also repaired or replaced a great deal of plumbing and heating facilities around the district, including replacing old rusted water heaters at Manorhaven.

The most significant issues remaining are roofs. Sousa Elementary’s roof has standing water so often, it is green with vegetation. Replacement and drains there are estimated at $786,000, a little over half of which is in the current budget. The remaining $334,500 will need to be in the budget for next year. Sections of roof at Schreiber also need work: 11,000 square feet over the social studies wing, and 4,500 square feet over the weight room, for a total estimated $415,000.

The entire roof at Weber, except the new wing, will also need replacing in the near future. Replacing the existing natural slate with a similar product is estimated to cost $2 million. Use of a recycled, simulated product would cost almost half that, or $1,092,000. Either way, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Gordon and the board are concerned that the amount of money required for these projects “almost warrants a bond.”

Polling Places

Board Vice President Sandra Ehrlich opened the discussion by observing that, “No one’s interested in polling places.” Adding three sites to the original on Campus Drive “may have made it easier to vote, but did not increase turnout.” A heavily advertised and well-attended recent community forum garnered many comments, but not on the issue of polling places. In addition, a survey at the district website produced a 31 percent response for keeping the status quo of (four locations) and 27 percent who answered “Don’t Care.” The remaining 42 percent were split between those wanting two locations (25 percent) or 1 (17 percent).

The survey was not scientifically designed, nor did it mention that the additional polling places cost the district $30,000, mainly for more voting machines and to staff all four polling sites for a 16-hour day.

Ironically, and frustratingly for the board, the total number of voters in each election has declined rather than increased since the change, from 5,318 in 2007 to 4,774 last May. This led board member Bill Hohauser to complain that “We are paying more money for fewer votes; the greater access has not been used at all.” Several members observed that there is still a lot of confusion among the electorate as to where they vote, which might account for the reduced turnout.

Sandra Ehrlich also mentioned that, when there was a single polling place, it led to a certain community spirit on Election night, which she misses. “It was a feature of community life. No matter what your opinion, you knew where to be at 10 o’clock,” she said.

Community member and ex-board member Nancy Cowles said, during the public comment period, that she was originally against the move to four polling places, but has now changed her mind and hopes that, rather than a hasty move back to one, the district will put more effort into getting more people to vote.

Parent Council co-President Paula Whitman felt that, on the contrary, the move to four polling sites had been very well-discussed, but has still created “a tremendous amount of confusion in the community,” which might account for the lower turnout. She would prefer seeing the money returned to educational needs.

Board President Karen Sloan reminded all that when the board voted to increase the number of polling places, it also said it would review the decision after three years. It has now been three election cycles, and results are disappointing. “It is costing more money, it has led to confusion, has not led to more voters, and there is still the same amount of disruption on Campus Drive. If we are going to make a change, any change other than back to a single polling place will just create more confusion (as to where people vote),” she said.

Superintendent Gordon said he will try to put questions about polling places in the January edition of the district publication, Port Advance. Board President Karen Sloan promised that if the board decides to vote on this issue, it would not be before the first meeting in January, and would be announced at least one meeting in advance.