Chatham gives school plan final airing before vote

CHATHAM–The school district referendum on the proposed $13.8M capital project will be held this Tuesday, November 19, with voters casting their ballots on the matter at the Mary E. Dardess (MED) Elementary School gymnasium from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. This week, in advance of the vote, the Board of Education held a public hearing on the project.

To address declining enrollment and financial pressures, the board began discussing in 2010 the possibility of consolidating the district in two school buildings from the three it presently operates. A facilities study completed last year concluded that moving students from the Middle School building on Woodbridge Avenue into the remaining two buildings would be feasible physically and would lead to savings for the district.

The board voted in June to approve consolidation that will take effect in the fall of 2015, with the 6th grade moving to MED, and grades 7 and 8 moving to the High School building. The district offices will move into the Middle School building, and the board is studying options for using unoccupied classrooms.

At the hearing Tuesday, November 12, district Business Administrator Michael Chudy said the annual savings and cost avoidance from consolidation would be $889,709.

The proposed $13.8-million capital project, which district officials say would have no tax impact on the district, includes expansions and modifications to the High School and Middle School buildings to accommodate the additional students. Mr. Chudy said state aid will cover about 48% of the cost, and the district will use $2 million it has set aside in its capital reserve fund. The remaining cost will be paid for with bonds, most of which will be retired over a 15-year period. Mr. Chudy estimates the annual debt to be $437,814.

Factoring in the savings from consolidation, he said, the district estimates it will see a net annual savings of $451,895.

Mr. Chudy also said that if the district does not consolidate, officials project that Chatham’s reserve funds will be depleted by the 2020-21 school year.

“We’re trying to do what we can to extend that out,” he said at the public hearing.

District Superintendent Cheryl Nuciforo said there is a 40-year downward trend in enrollment and studies predict that trend will continue. She said that in the past few years, “The trends have been right on with what the projections said they’d be” in terms of Chatham’s enrollment.

The work proposed for the MED school includes an expanded gymnasium, floor renovations for five lower-level classrooms and an additional register in the cafeteria. The work at the High School includes four new classrooms for the 7th and 8th grades, a new fitness room, a music room and renovations to the cafeteria, auditorium, classrooms, the library, nurse’s office and other spaces.

The campus drive would be upgraded to improve traffic flow and to accommodate the additional traffic from consolidation.

Addressing concerns regarding the future of the Middle School, Ms. Nuciforo said that students will still use the auditorium, gymnasium and athletic fields, and the Chatham Public Library, already attached to the school building, might expand once the students leave. The superintendent said there have also been discussion of space for daycare, for small businesses, art classes for the community by a private party, and a college credit program where high school students could earn an associate’s degree. She said an application process is being developed for those interested in using space in the building.

No one in the audience questioned the proposal, though critics of the district’s plan have expressed skepticism, saying the board left the community out of the decision-making process. But board President Melony Spock said at the hearing that the district’s process has been “very transparent.”

“We have done a lot of community outreach,” she said. “We have received a lot of input that’s guided us in developing the capital project.”

Ms. Spock said there were three things the board heard the most from the community: offer quality programming, keep control of taxes and maintain Chatham traditions.

“We used these priorities to help us make the decision to consolidate. We want to provide the best possible education to Chatham students at a cost the community can afford,” she said. “Resources in our state and country are shrinking and we have been proactive in finding efficiencies so that we can continue to provide the best possible education for the students of Chatham.”

More information on the capital project is online at the district website www.chathamcentralschools.com.

 

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