What do Chatham taxpayers get?

SOMETHING FOR NOTHING? It sounds like officials of the Chatham Central School District want voters to believe that’s what they’ll get if they approve two ballot propositions next Tuesday, January 12. Everybody knows that when you get something for nothing, you get what you pay for.

But wait, the district isn’t flimflamming the public. Together, the proposals would authorize the board to spend just over $5 million for critical improvements and repairs, and paying for these projects will not increase school taxes. How does that add up?

The first proposal on the January 12 ballot, for $4.2 million, covers a long list of projects that would make school buildings more energy efficient, like replacing windows at the elementary and middle schools. Saving energy saves money. Just ask taxpayers in the Ichabod Crane Central School District, which has taken a lead cutting energy costs.

The proposal addresses even more pressing needs, including removal of an aging electrical transformer locked in a room of the elementary school. The transformer is full of PCBs, highly toxic chemicals. Those chemicals don’t pose an immediate threat, but a few years ago an accident caused similar transformers at the SUNY New Paltz campus to explode, spewing hazardous fumes through dormitories. The cleanup, which some say was never completed, cost millions.

And then there are the asbestos tiles on the floors in the grade school. Again, they don’t represent an immediate threat, but they must be “encapsulated” so none of the material can escape. It’s an effective way to prevent any exposure in the future, and it’s a lot cheaper than tearing up the school floors if the tiles begin to fray.

The proposal would upgrade science labs–some lack hot water or the equipment to vent fumes that young experiments shouldn’t be breathing. It would put the district in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and address leaking roofs and crumbling masonry. More details are available in the district newsletter and online at www.chathamcentralschools.com.

The second of the two proposals contains a single expenditure: $320,000 for new lights for the athletic field. These lights illuminate football games and other events. The existing lights, if you can call them that, probably attract more vampires than moths. Sports fans describe them as the dimmest lights in the league. That may make them the least efficient, too. The utility poles that support them sway in the wind.

So why not play football Saturday afternoon? Nighttime football is a community tradition, say supporters.

Wisely, the school board packaged the lights in a separate proposition. But there will be no new lights unless voters also approve the first proposition.

Where does the money come from if not from new taxes? The language of the first proposition mentions a tax, but ignore that. It’s a legal formality. The new project is paid for by funds on hand or guaranteed by the state. To bankroll these projects the board would turn to four sources: it will clean out its capital reserve fund of $1.4 million; it has more than half a million dollars not used for the last capital improvement project; half a million bucks is available in federal economic stimulus aid; and the remainder would come from a pot of state aid squirreled away in Albany.

If Chatham doesn’t spend this money, the federal stimulus and the state funds will simply go to some other school district. The district would have money in the bank, but taxpayers would bear the costs of higher school energy bills and deteriorating buildings, which never get any cheaper to repair… or replace.

As for new lights, traditions have great value, but a desire to keep things the same doesn’t outweigh the need to save money in these hard times. We also wonder what message it sends to kids when the district promotes a plan to conserve energy inside school buildings only to waste energy on unnecessary lighting outside. We oppose Proposition 2.

By contrast, the board and administration make a compelling argument for the repairs and sensible upgrades covered by Proposition 1. This proposal focuses on safety, accessibility, efficiency and basic educational needs. The plan doesn’t offer something for nothing; we’ve already paid for these projects, and we want that money spent here, not at some other school. We urge support for Proposition 1.

Polls are open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday, January 12, at the Mary E. Dardess Elementary School gym.

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