Chatham inches closer to emergency access

CHATHAM–The school district will move another step toward constructing an emergency access road to the main campus when, as anticipated at last week’s board meeting, the school board accepts an easement granted by the Village of Chatham.

The board is also moved ahead last week on a proposal for an alternative veterans’ tax exemption by setting a public hearing on that proposal for the next meeting January 13.

Over the years, the safety concerns have been expressed by many that the district campus, comprising the elementary and high school buildings, has only one route for vehicles to come and go. Superintendent Cheryl Nuciforo has assured the board and the public that the district already has several plans in place to evacuate students in an emergency. The purpose of creating a new access road, she said, is to ensure emergency vehicles are able to reach the school buildings in case the main drive connecting the school campus to Woodbridge Avenue is ever blocked.

“We have multiple means of evacuating our students other than just the road out onto Woodbridge Avenue. We’re not going to share those evacuation plans publicly. It’s considered to be unsafe to share them,” she said, adding that in a situation where the Woodbridge Avenue entrance is blocked, “What we don’t have is another way for emergency vehicles to access the campus.”

The proposed access road would run from the side of the Mary E. Dardess Elementary school building and come out on Shore Road. It would run through Village property near the pump house. District officials had been meeting with members of the Village Board, which has approved an easement for the district, making the road possible. The school board will likely vote to accept the easement at its January 13 meeting.

Business administrator Michael Chudy said the road will be gated at both ends to exclude everyday traffic. Instead, the road will be used by vehicles only for emergencies. The road project will include construction of a walking trail regularly available to pedestrians. The district met with emergency providers to get feedback in the planning of the project, and Mr. Chudy said officials suggested that the access road be 20 feet wide.

He said the project will cost about $700,000. Matt Monaghan, architect of SEI Design Group, said that if the district does also $10,000 worth of work inside the elementary school building, then the state would pay for 50% of the cost of the road.

Mr. Chudy said the district had considered creating an access road leading from the far side of the campus, but found that plan would not be feasible. He said much of the route is wetlands and the road would have cost over $3 million, not including the cost of purchasing property.

The alternative veterans’ tax exemption was also on the agenda at the December 16 meeting. This exemption, which makes certain military veterans eligible for local property tax exemptions, is an optional recently made available by the state to school districts that choose to adopt it. But the cost of the reductions will not be paid by the state, so to make up for lost tax revenues school districts that offer the tax break will either have to cut costs or shift more of the tax burden onto the tax bills the other, ineligible property owners.

This cost shift appeared to be the main concern of board members. “Of course I want to help veterans. But I don’t want to help someone that doesn’t need it if hurts people that do,” said member Teri Conte. “I would feel better if there were some kind of income qualification criteria along with it.”

Member Jennifer Lindberg said she thought “the intent is honorable,” but she has concerns about the people in hardship who would have to take on increased taxes.

Ms. Nuciforo said the board has until March 1 to decide whether members want to adopt the exemption for this year, and she said that ultimately members have four options: vote to accept or vote to reject the plan; send a statement of the board’s position to the state; postpone all action on the matter this year.

She said Ichabod Crane has asked the state to fund the exemption.

Board member Craig Simmons suggested not acting on it this year, but adding a line to the budget vote asking for the public’s opinion.

The public hearing on the matter is scheduled for January 13 at 6:30 p.m. in the high school library.

Also at the meeting:

*The board recognized school-district attorney Keith G. Flint, who is retiring after serving the district in that role for 45 years. Ms. Nuciforo praised him as “incredibly responsive, very customer service oriented,” and called him “extremely professional”

*District resident Isabel Bigelow conveyed her “disappointment with Chatham’s state test scores,” and criticized the district for not addressing them. Later in the meeting Board President Melony Spock said the results do get discussed and the board is planning to use the results in its long-term planning. She added that the scores aren’t all bad.

” We’ve had improvement in some areas and we’re really proud those,” she said. “We do talk about testing and the improvements our students are making and also to help them improve where they need help”

*Wayne Coe requested that the board to create a new committee of “local leaders” and parents regarding consolidation when the board begins looking into a new plan. He said the process of developing the last consolidation plan was “to exclude the community entirely.” He said he submitted to the board a list of names he recommended, and stated they “have much more likelihood in the public to be trusted” because they were not part of the school or involved with the former plan.

Ms. Spock said later in the meeting that the board plans to work first on the district’s long-term plan, and “that will lead us into the direction we go into our consolidation plan.” She said the board values feedback from everyone, and plans to include the “input from all stakeholders” from the beginning of its planning. She encouraged those with input to speak with the board members.

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