EDITORIAL: Vote Yes on Chatham proposition

THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE must have been edited by a Founding Father with no kids of his own, because history proves that our true national goals are life, liberty and the pursuit of a better education.

We still haven’t got that last part right; the public continually demands that educators fix the damage done by the last set of geniuses who reformed public education. Soon enough all students will wear Google glasses and have microchips inserted beneath their skins for scans not tests. The faster your chip, the smarter your kid.

Aside from high tech, the question facing local districts now is how much space does it take to educate kids. The public consensus in the last century was that our growing population demanded consolidation, with one-room schools giving way to central school districts. But more recently a shrinking school-age population has plagued rural parts of this state, including Columbia County. And that has led to a redefinition of consolidation.

What’s happening here is not consolidation, it’s downsizing. Hudson and Ichabod Crane districts recently went through it, and it’s the reason behind a special election Tuesday, November 19, which asks voters in the Chatham Central School District to approve a $13.8 million capital improvement project.

The Chatham Board of Education has already adopted a plan to move all classes out of the oldest of its three buildings, the Middle School on Woodbridge Avenue, before the start of school in 2015. When that happens, district 6th graders will attend the elementary school and 7th and 8th graders will have classes in a section of Chatham High School.

The district has written materials on the ballot proposition and has posted the information at chathamcentralschools.com (click the button with the red schoolhouse icon). The upgrades and additions, and the reasons for them, are reviewed again on Page 3 in this week’s edition.
The question Chatham voters must ask themselves is whether the project as a whole will benefit students. While the proposal was under discussion there were times the board and administration appeared to decide first and ask for ideas later. But in the end, the proposition reflects what students, parents and taxpayers said they wanted. The board has also promised to heed the plea for no reductions to the educational program. The proposition accomplishes this balancing act.

The cost? The district says that borrowing $13.8 million over 15 years to finance the project will have “no tax impact.” Here again the right wording would make things clearer. The financing relies on state aid, on money the district has set aside to be used only for capital improvements, and on money the district expects to save by downsizing. The combination of these three sources covers the project’s annual debt service. So the project doesn’t add to the annual budget, which means it has “no school property tax impact.”

School districts, like businesses, look to reduce costs when they downsize, and a big part of the “savings and cost avoidance” of downsizing is achieved by cutting jobs. That’s distressing. It’s also the reason we elect school boards. We expect board members to find cost-effective ways to educate children, even when their decisions deprive our neighbors of their public sector jobs. This is not a pain-free process, but neither are the taxes associated with paying more than we need to for good public schools.

The board could have let this opportunity pass and opted to wait for a crisis before asking taxpayers to respond. Wisely, board members have instead seized the opportunity available now to improve district facilities and support the educational program without a property tax increase. The price is right, the goals are clear. Vote Yes on the Chatham school capital improvement proposition Tuesday, November 19.

Addendum
Critics of this proposition have raised objections that range from thoughtful to absurd. The district is fortunate to have articulate residents willing to challenge the official line. But in one instance criticism crossed the line that separates lively debate from irresponsible mudslinging. In a pamphlet urging a No vote on the proposition, Wayne Coe, an artist and district resident, took a statement by board member David O’Connor out of context, accusing Mr. O’Connor of wanting to close the school to benefit his own company.
It’s an irrational, insupportable accusation that undermines the credibility of everything Mr. Coe has to say about the project. Mr. O’Connor, an honorable man, has spent long hours volunteering as a member of the Board of Education. Mr. Coe owes him and the board a public apology.

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