GHENT–The Town Board heard a presentation last week on the Chatham Central School District’s proposal for a $13.8-million capital project going before voters November 19, as school district Business Administrator Michael Chudy and school board Vice President James Toteno spoke about what the project entails and the reasons for it, drawing a skeptical reaction from some town officials and residents.
To address declining enrollment and looming financial pressures, the Board of Education voted in June to move all students from the Middle School building on Woodbridge Avenue to the remaining two school buildings starting in the fall of 2015. Sixth graders will attend the Mary E. Dardess (MED) Elementary School, and grades 7 and 8 will go to the High School. If approved by voters, the $13.8-million capital project would expand or modify school buildings to accommodate the consolidation.
At last week’s Ghent Town Board meeting, Mr. Chudy said that among the projects the proposal would fund is the addition of a second exit lane onto Woodbridge Avenue from the school campus driveway. The parent drop-off at MED would be expanded and the parking lots redesigned to create additional parking.
The elementary school gymnasium would be expanded to regulation size and five lower level rooms at the school currently used as district offices would be renovated as classrooms. Improvements would also eliminate a cafeteria “bottleneck” that limits the time students have for eating lunch.
At the High School four new classrooms would be added for the 7th and 8th graders. Also in the proposal are:
•The technology room renovations
•Fitness center addition and space for school music programs
•Library upgrades to segregate middle and high school instruction
•Auditorium data ports for 150 seats for online testing to comply with new state mandates
•More privacy for the nurse’s office.
Mr. Chudy said that by taking steps now the district will be able to preserve its programming while saving money without raising taxes. He said that Chatham is projected to deplete its reserves by 2020. Also, experts predict a long-term downward trend in enrollment.
The November 19 ballot proposal would not increase the school tax levy based on the state reimbursements and the projected savings from consolidation job cuts. Mr. Chudy said the district estimates the consolidation and proposed improvements will produce about $451,000 in net savings for the district. There might also be income if the district leases space in the Middle School building. Parts of that building will be used for district offices and the Chatham Public Library, but the district is beginning to explore options for the remaining space. The district will continue to use the athletic field and bus garage.
Larry Van Brunt, Ghent deputy supervisor, asked whether this project would affect taxes in the future. Mr. Chudy responded it would not.
In response to a question from Ghent Highway Superintendent Mike Losa, Mr. Chudy said the savings from consolidation amounts to about 2.5% of the tax levy.
“That doesn’t sound like a whole lot of savings,” said Mr. Losa.
“What we’re looking at is how we can extend,” replied Mr. Chudy. “Districts are running out of money and either trying to raise taxes or cut programs. We’re looking at ways not to do that, and this will buy us time.”
Town Board member Linda Schlegel-Hess said that if home values decline, the school district may have to raise taxes anyway. Mr. Chudy said the project would save money that could help offset potential tax increases.
Town Board member Richard Sardo asked how many years the district would save the $451,000.
“The first year you save it, then the following years you avoid the cost,” said Mr. Chudy.
One resident asked why the students can’t remain in the Middle School building if the district plans on continuing to use it anyway. Mr. Chudy said it’s because the district needs to realize the savings to avoid program cuts in the future. “We’re doing everything we can to maintain what Chatham offers,” he said.
Asked what happens if the bond proposition doesn’t pass in November, Mr. Toteno said that the board’s decision is to consolidate. “If the capital project doesn’t pass, we’ll have to see,” he said. “We might come back with another project or we may not.”
“In other words, you don’t care what we think. You’re going to do what you think,” said Mr. Losa.
Resident Wayne Coe called the district’s position “blackmail.”
“People want options,” he said. “The people had no input into this plan.”
But Mr. Chudy said there has been a “tremendous amount” of input over two years, including seven town-hall-style meetings at which the public was invited to voice opinions. He added that focus groups made up of students, staff and parents also provided input.
Mr. Toteno said that if something isn’t done to save the money now, then, “We would either have to raise more money or cut programs.”
There will be a public hearing on the bond proposition November 12.
Also at the October 17 meeting, the board:
•Heard town attorney Ted Guterman say that the town is “issuing an enforcement of violation” against the Kinderhook Sportsmen’s Club on Fowler Lake Road. The club has expanded its facilities without permits. Earlier this year the club did submit applications for the permits, but they were rejected by the town after the club failed to provide requested information needed for the Planning Board’s environmental review. Mr. Guterman said there was now “no application pending before the board” for the already completed expansions.
•Heard Mr. Van Brunt say there will be a public hearing for the 2014 budget on November 7 at 7 p.m. The November town board meeting will follow.
•Heard Mr. Van Brunt say there will be a Halloween parade October 31 starting at the Ghent Town Hall and ending at the Ghent Firehouse.
•Heard Mr. Van Brunt say that the annual tree-lighting will be December 1 at the Ghent Town Hall.