CHATHAM–The Board of Education plans to propose a revised capital project to voters ahead of the district consolidation scheduled for September of 2015. The previous plan was soundly defeated by voters last month and board members said this week they want to hear what changes the community wants to see in the plan. With that in mind, the board meet to hear public comments Tuesday, December 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the High School.
Looming financial pressures and declining enrollment were cited by the board when members decided in June to consolidate all students in the two buildings on the main campus; the plan calls for the Middle School building on Woodbridge Avenue to be used for other purposes. District officials said consolidation would lower district costs, mostly from lower personnel costs. To adapt the existing buildings for the influx of additional students, the board then proposed $13.8 million in capital improvements. The board said the upgrades and expansions were needed to preserve existing educational programs and that the overall project would not raise the school district’s property tax rate because it would be funded with state aid, district capital reserves and consolidation cost reductions, leaving a net annual savings of about $450,000. On November 19 the proposal was defeated 481 to 668.
At a special board meeting Tuesday, December 3 to discuss the next steps, board President Melony Spock put four options before the board: no consolidation; consolidation with no capital project; propose same capital project a second time; or propose a revised or reduced capital project. The board easily dismissed the first two options.
All the board members present agreed that the district could not afford to keep the Middle School open. Superintendent Cheryl Nuciforo said that the district is using reserve funds to help pay its expenses, but projections have shown the district is expected to deplete those funds by the 2020-21 school year if there is no consolidation.
District Business Administrator Michael Chudy said that if the district were to run out of reserves, it might see either a 12-13% increase in the tax levy or be forced to “cut programs drastically.”
Board member Gail Day said one of the reasons people voted against the project was to avoid higher taxes. “But the cost to keep that building open would raise our taxes,” she said.
Ms. Nuciforo said that consolidating without a capital project would be feasible and realize savings, but that there would be “programmatic sacrifices” due to lack of instructional space and flexibility in scheduling.
Board member James Marks said consolidation needs to happen to save money, but that doing so without capital work is “unacceptable.”
Ms. Day said many voters were “misled” into thinking they were voting on the consolidation itself, and believes making it clear that consolidation has already been decided will help the referendum a second time around.
Board Vice President James Toteno said the original proposal was the “best plan” and “well thought out.” Before the discussion, the board held a public comment session and heard a few speakers plead with the board to re-propose the plan. They said they would be more prepared to deal with the “misinformation” that was out in the community in the weeks leading up to the November 19 vote.
The majority of board members said they felt the original project was ultimately the right plan, but agreed the best course of action would be to revise the proposal.
“I believe in my heart that the project we proposed was what the district needs,” said Mr. Marks. “They voted no. We have to consider that.” He said that whatever the new plan is, the board needs to make sure the voters know exactly what they are voting on.
Board member Mike Clark said he found about $4 million he would be comfortable removing, although he supports improvements. “We’re not just trying to preserve programs, we’re trying to improve programs,” he said.
Ms. Day said she had heard voters question the cost of expanding the new elementary school gym and the use of capital reserve funds. Matt Monaghan, architect from SEI Design Group, said the high cost of the gym had to do with the extent of the expansion. Ms. Nuciforo said the capital reserve funds may only be used for these types of projects.
Ms. Spock said she wanted to hear more community feedback about a new plan. Board member Muriel Faxon suggested the public comment session December 10 before the regular business meeting.
Ms. Nuciforo said that in order to meet the 2015 consolidation deadline, the board would need to approve a new referendum to present to the community by January 15.
During the public commenting session last week prior to the board’s discussion, consolidation opponent Wayne Coe said that the high number 668 dissenting votes shows that the community does not support consolidation. “These people were motivated in large numbers to come out and vote this down,” he said.
Others who opposed the proposition said they were not misinformed. John McGowan said he hears from people who believe that the board never listened to the public, but he added, “That is categorically not true.” He said he sat in on one of the focus groups and attended several meetings on the matter and saw an item regarding the gym get changed in the proposed project after being brought up in the focus group meeting.