SAY YOU HAD a little home improvement project in mind and the estimate came in at $20 million. You think, well, that’s more than I expected. Then your rich aunt offers to pay for most of it if you kick in your retirement savings and borrow the rest. Easy, right?
That’s kind of the situation confronting voters in the Hudson City School District who go to the polls next Tuesday, February 9 to decide the fate of a $19.9 capital improvement proposal. Much of that would pay for changes to the M.C. Smith Intermediate School on Harry Howard Avenue. The proposal would also fund Improvements at the nearby junior/senior high school, as well as nearly a million and a half dollars for a new track and athletic fields.
At first it sounded like crazy talk to spend so much in a district that not long ago was on the list of “fiscally stressed” school districts. But like a rich aunt, the state building aid program will reimburse the district for over 71% of project costs. And as a demonstration that the school is now managing its money wisely, the district has $1.5 million in reserves to help pay for the project.
If you look only at the financing, the project is a no-brainer. The district would get somewhere near $20 million in improvements if voters approve spending just over $4 million on top of the $1.5 from the reserves cookie jar. Sounds too good to be true, but it’s legal.
Regardless of the bargain you’re getting, does the district really need to do this? Like everything else having to do with public education, the answer gets complicated. About half the money would address maintenance issues identified by the routine “Building Survey” required by the state. The biggest single item involves the heating/ventilation/air conditioning system at the junior/senior high school. It’s noisy (forget about kids; consider the neighbors) and inefficient. Fixing it might seem like a luxury. But now, class, take out your climate change notebooks and calculate the cost to taxpayers of wasting energy while needlessly heating the atmosphere.
New construction makes up the bulk of cost–almost $10 million–and most of that money supports changes needed for restructuring the lower grades and consolidating the current three campuses into two sites. The M.C. Smith School would be remodeled and expanded to handle pre-kindergarten through 5th grade; 6th grade will be moved to the junior high.
The administration has advanced persuasive educational reasons for the changes and it is hard to argue with the logic that two campuses will cost taxpayers less than three. The move has the added advantage of preserving the stately intermediate school building. And that would close the case in favor of this ballot question except for one thing–the unanswered question of what happens to the community around the John L. Edwards Primary School (JLE) when that community institution is gone.
M.C. Smith is not distant and unlike JLE it has ample parking with fewer traffic hazards. JLE is squat and plain with nowhere to grow. The Hudson district has closed other schools and most have been repurposed. Plans will emerge for new ways to use the site. But what replaces the human capital generated by a vibrant public school in the heart of a low-income minority community?
This plan suffers from social compartmentalization as in: The job of the school district is to educate the children… Period. But why can’t the disruption that accompanies the closure of a school be factored into the costs? The documents say there’s no significant environmental impact to the district’s consolidation. That’s true, unless you consider the humans. When you close a school in a neighborhood like lower State Street it’s likely the people who live there will have fewer resources to respond.
There’s no point in voting against this proposal in protest, hoping that it might force greater sensitivity to the needs of one community. Current state policies wouldn’t allow the Hudson school board to account for such matters in a funding proposition even if the district sought to include them. And without a practical alternative, each No vote risks amplifying the damage to the community.
This proposition aims to improve public education by making the best use of available resources. It spends wisely and without unduly burdening taxpayers. Vote Yes on the proposition, but have no illusions. The costs are much higher than advertised.
Polls are open from noon to 9 p.m. Call the district office for polling sites.