Chatham wrestles with school plan do-over

CHATHAM–The Board of Education went into last week’s public input session asking what the community wants changed in the capital project proposal defeated last month, but came out wondering about whether their communication methods need an overhaul.

Also at the December 10 meeting the board learned that David O’Connor has tendered his resignation from the board.

The board cited looming financial pressures and declining enrollment when members decided in June to consolidate all students in the two buildings on the main campus use the Middle School building on Woodbridge Avenue for other purposes. District officials said consolidation would reduce expenses, mostly from lower personnel costs. To adapt the remaining schools for the influx of additional students the board proposed $13.8 million in upgrades and expansions meant to preserve existing educational programs.

The overall project was designed not raise the district’s property tax rate because it would be funded with a combination of state aid, district funds set aside for improvements and the savings achieved from consolidation, leaving an estimate net annual savings of about $450,000.

On November 19 the proposal was defeated at the polls 481 to 668.

Following the vote the board affirmed its support for consolidating but said capital improvements were necessary and scheduled last week’s public input session to find out what revisions district voters might approve. Residents filled the high school library to voice their opinions.

Ted Miner wanted to understand why bathroom renovations in the project cost $67,000. He added that he thought there was a disconnect that the board needed to address.

“If you were surprised by the bond result, that then means there is a disconnect between the public and yourself,” he said.

Steve Gilger said the defeat of the referendum showed that the community does not want the Middle School closed. “Find another way to make it work,” he said.

Terri Conte said she believes consolidation and the proposed project are best for the district. She urged the board to put the same proposal out for second vote. She believes some voters fear the building the old Middle School building is being abandoned and said the plan for its reuse should be made clearer to voters. “We are not closing the Middle School; we are repurposing it,” she said.

Other community members reiterated the notion that the board may need to better educate the public on the issues.

“If that school has to close because of financial reasons, then let’s do everything in our power make sure the two remaining facilities are brought up to date,” said Jackie LeClair. “The exit surveys showed that half of them didn’t know what they were voting on.”

John Knight, who is in favor of the project, said there was a lot of “misinformation” going around before the vote, and felt the board may need to try harder “to put the information out there.”

“We need to go out and educate people,” he said. “The majority of people maybe got complacent.”

Karen Malina said she voted against the proposition, and said that voters on either side should not be categorized. She criticized the board for not explaining the project enough. “If you want to sell it, you have to do the work and be more specific,” she said. “You have to explain it.”

But Ms. Conte said she’s been to many board meetings where the project was explained in detail. She said she believes many opponents were unaware that they were voting on the bond, not the consolidation, which was already decided by the board. She suggested that the board try to communicate the consequences of consolidating without the capital project.

David Levow asked why there was no referendum for consolidation itself. Board member Mike Clark said that by state law consolidation is a board decision.

Rich Kraham, publisher of the Chatham Press, said he’s hearing from voters that the issue is trust.

Wayne Coe said education law states that the board should have put together an advisory committee together at the beginning of the process. He also distributed his own alternative consolidation plan that includes closing the Mary E. Dardess Elementary (MED) School instead of the Middle School, which he said would require only a $4.26-million capital project.

Board President Melony Spock told the audience that she wishes “people would have trusted us enough to talk to us sooner.”

Board member James Marks, visibly upset, said he was irritated with the board’s critics for not being more part of the discussion from the beginning of the process.

“I hear over and over that we’re not listening. How many meetings have we had? Nobody shows up,” he said. “It pains me to think how many times we were there waiting for people to show up to ask us questions. You guys want input? Show up.”

After the public input, schools Superintendent Cheryl Nuciforo addressed some of the concerns raised. The cost of the bathroom renovation, she  said, had to do with relocating computer servers that are currently in the space. Regarding Mr. Coe’s proposal to close the elementary school as an alternative, Ms. Nuciforo said the Middle School building has the fewest number of classrooms and lowest square footage, so it would be unable to accommodate consolidation.

Matt Monaghan, an architect from SEI Design, addressed concerns over the cost of the proposed MED gym expansion. He said the cost includes expanding the height of the gym as well as expanding it outward, “essentially having to build a new space.” He said a half million dollars can be eliminated from the cost by keeping the height of the gym where it is.

Ms. Nuciforo had said previously that the board would need to agree upon a new proposition before mid-January in order for construction to meet the 2015 consolidation schedule. But Ms. Spock last week she is “very concerned about the timeline” and felt the process needs to be slowed. Some on the board agreed.

But Board member Gail Day said the majority of people who spoke last week favor the project and she said the same proposal should be put on the ballot to “counter some of the claims.”

Jennifer Lindberg suggested looking at ways to improve the board’s communication.

Other board members agreed. Vice President James Toteno said the board should start reviewing its communication methods while the Facilities Committee reviews the capital project plan for possible revisions.

Member Craig Simmons suggested not holding the town hall-style meetings like the board did ahead of the last vote. He suggested instead meetings that are more like discussions. “We can’t sit there and drill people,” he said.

Mr. Marks said that if the board does decide to delay the process, it should still set an end date people know that there is a timeline in place. At the end of the meeting, board member Muriel Faxon read aloud a letter written by Mr. O’Connor announcing his resignation from the board. “I loved doing my best to represent a community I love,” the letter says, but with recent death of his son Brian, “I just do not have the strength of heart and conviction to fight the good fight as a board member,” Mr. O’Connor wrote.

Mr. Marks said Mr. O’Connor had “great commitment.”

Ms. Spock called him a “dedicated board member.”

In other business at the meeting Ms. Nuciforo said the district is looking into creating an emergency access road between the MED parking lot and Shore Road.

The road would be for emergency vehicles and pedestrians only so there would be access for emergency vehicles if the main entrance were ever blocked. She was scheduled to meet with the Village Board last week, since the road would cross village property. Mr. Monaghan said the cost is estimated to be $325,000.

 

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