School board reports mixed reviews for upgrade do-over

CHATHAM–The Board of Education’s focus was back on the topic of a capital project last week, as members discussed the progress and feedback of the capital project workgroup meetings.

Due to looming financial pressures and declining enrollment, the board decided last June to consolidate the students from the Middle School into the remaining two buildings. Critical to this plan, which would have taken effect in September 2015, was voter approval for a $13.8-million capital project to adapt the two buildings for the influx of additional students.

 

The district projected a net savings of $450,000 a year from consolidation even with the debt from the project, but voters turned down the proposition last November by a large majority. Since then the board has reaffirmed its decision that the district must consolidate its buildings, but board members also agreed that they needed a different approach, acknowledging that the process leading to the failed referendum was not perceived by the public as transparent.

Earlier this year, the board created a capital project workgroup made up largely of community members. The goal was to help the board understand how the public feels the next steps should be taken regarding another proposal for capital improvements. Two of these meetings have been held so far.

“I received a lot of positive feedback. People feel really engaged,” said Board President Melony Spock at the March 25 board meeting. “There have been some really good discussions.”

She said a survey was being created and would be sent voters to further help the board to understand how to proceed in the coming workgroup sessions. She also wanted board members’ opinions on how the next session should be directed based on the feedback they’ve received.

School board member Mike Clark said a major concern he keeps hearing is that closing the Middle School would mean putting the entire student population “in danger” of chemicals if there were a train derailment.

The high school sits in a bowl surrounded on two sides by CSX railroad tracks. The elementary school is on a nearby knoll. The rail line is a heavily used corridor for shipping freight in and out of New England.

“It’s kind of a stopper, but we have kids down there right now,” Mr. Clark said. “If the danger is unacceptable for the whole population, then it’s unacceptable for a third of the population.”

He presented two options for the community to consider: relocating the entire campus or “continuing the calculated risk” and taking further steps for safety.

Board members agreed that this would be a good topic for discussion during future workgroup sessions.

Member Muriel Faxon said she heard a lot of concern over the possibility of Middle School students “mingling” with older students in the halls of the high school.

Board member Gail Day asked about the possibility of regional schools.

Superintendent Cheryl Nuciforo replied that the state Education Department is interested in the possibility of regional schools, but New York’s size and diversity “makes it difficult.”

Board member James Marks said he feels the board’s goals to “find ways to preserve program” have resonated with the community.

Member Jennifer Lindberg suggested that the board should ask the workgroup community members what information it is that they need to see to help understand why certain decisions were made about the last proposal.

Also at the March 25 meeting, the board:

*Heard an update from Business Administrator Michael Chudy regarding the proposal to add an emergency access road to the school campus. He said he and architect Matt Monaghan met with village Mayor Tom Curran to present the plan. The road would go from the lower campus to Shore Road, and would be used only by emergency vehicles.

“The issue isn’t getting people off campus,” said Ms. Nuciforo. “The issue is creating a way for emergency vehicles to get on campus if Woodbridge Ave. or the main drive are blocked”

*Heard a budget proposal from faculty advisor Judith Matthews for The Fall Festival of Shakespeare, a program that has been at Chatham since 2000. It is a 10-week residency by professionals from Shakespeare and Company that costs $20,000 a year. Ms. Matthews said the district used to contribute $6,000 a year, but the program recently has been fully funded through private donations, grants and fundraisers. However, due to the rough economic times, she said, it is more difficult to obtain funds. She requested that the district contribute $5,000 this year to help the program.

“Next year we only start with a balance of $196 in our account, so I’m a bit nervous,” she said. “We know the program is very valuable to the district.” The board approved the request

*Approved the budget proposals for the AP (Advanced Placement) Biology course and the new pre-K program, which were presented at previous meetings. AP Biology, said Ms. Nuciforo, will cost an extra $3,000 for new textbooks and teacher training. The pre-K program will not add any cost to the district since it will utilize a current kindergarten teacher who will not be needed for kindergarten next year due to declining enrollment

*Heard Jean Scheriff, director of data assessment and special programs, explain the transportation plan for the pre-K program. She said students who are more than four years old could ride on the district’s normal bus runs. But parents of students under four would be responsible for transportation. She said the reason is that there are special requirements for students under four regarding harnesses and car seats.

She said the goal was to not add any news expenses to the budget next year with this program. She added that if it proves to be a “barrier” to the parents, then it might be reconsidered in the next couple years. Ms. Scheriff and elementary school Principal Kristen Reno proposed this program to target and prepare the “unserved” population of students who do not attend other public or private preschools

*Heard Special Education Director Tamara Thorpe-Odom discuss next year’s projected expenditures for special education. The draft budget projects $2.8 million in expenses for special education, an increase of $195,973.

*Heard Mr. Chudy review the total $29,476,547 projected budget for the district next school year. That would be an increase of $301,531, or 1.03%

*Adopted a new Code of Ethics Policy, which now holds board members to the same standards as district staff

*Heard Ms. Nuciforo say that board candidate petitions are now available in her office. People interested in running for a seat on the board should have the petition filled out and returned by April 21 at 5 p.m.

*Accepted the resignation of Public Library Director Hannah Bachrach.

 

 

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