CHATHAM–The Board of Education meeting this week included a public information session on the upcoming Capital Project. Planned to take place over the next three years, the proposed project targets major repairs in the school district’s five buildings—the three schools, the public library and the bus garage.
If district voters approve the project, it would focus will on repairing parts of the school district that have been neglected for years—masonry, structural issues with roofs and windows, paving, and repairs for the tennis courts and high school track.
A separate companion proposition would fund surveillance cameras.
The board plans to split the project into two separate ballot propositions to be voted on by the public in May along with the school board elections. Proposal A contains items mentioned above and is estimated to cost $9.7 million, but the board was quick to assure those present that this would not result in an increase in school taxes.
More than half the funding for this part of the project would come from the district’s capital reserves—funds already on hand. The balance of project costs would be reimbursed through state aid. The state Education Department offers state aid to districts for school construction and repair at just under 50% of project costs, so the $5.3 million from district capital reserves combined with $4.4 million from state aid ensures that Proposal A would not result in a tax increase.
“It’s not tax free to us, because we’re spending $5.3 million of reserves,” board member Dave O’Connor said at the February 13 meeting. “But we had invested those reserves to keep our buildings up to standard.”
Proposal B of the capital project includes the installation of security cameras in all three of the school buildings, both inside and outside the buildings. This proposal is estimated at $1.2 million, with a tax increase of $4 per household valued at $100,000.
Cost aside, there was some discussion at the meeting from members of the public worried over the installation of cameras in a school and what that could mean for the privacy of students and teachers. Superintendent Salvatore DeAngelo assured those present that the cameras would not be in any instructional areas, but mainly in the hallways, and on the school’s exterior.
Dr. DeAngelo cited cases from previous school districts he had worked in, where camera footage was the only evidence officials had had when students or teachers had done something wrong.
“In a different school district, there was an accusation against a bus driver, and it was founded,” says DeAngelo. “He was frustrated, kids were taunting him, and even though that wasn’t right, they just got under his skin and he then shoved a student. I’ve seen [the cameras] work for more positive than negative.”
One audience member, Steve Gilger, was outraged at the idea of installing more cameras in the district. He said the camera proposition meant Chatham was running the risk of becoming like George Orwell’s “1984”.
Dr. DeAngelo responded, saying that there are already 340 cameras installed at the high school alone—those on the phones of the 340 students there.
The superintendent also said he and the board “want the public to weigh in as to the importance of installing security cameras,” adding that he hoped people would come to him with their questions and concerns.
“We really want to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money. We want to do it once, and we
want to do it right,” Dr. DeAngelo said. “If we’re going to do it, I want a security system that will meet our needs for years to come, not some Mickey Mouse system where we put it in because we’d save money and it doesn’t do what we need it to do.”
In 2015 after conducting a building condition survey, the district adopted 5-year plan to repair the school district’s buildings. In January of this year, the board met with the Buildings and Grounds Supervisor Steve Nieto for a tour of the school district to go over areas in dire need of repairs. The Facilities Committee then took the board’s feedback and refined the list of repairs.
The purpose of this week’s meeting was to educate the public on the state of all buildings—pictures were shown of broken gutters, rusted pipes, cracked pavement, patched tennis courts, and external doors barely able to close.
In a recent interview former president of the Board of Education John Wapner weighed in on the current capital project. He mentioned that projects like this come along every few years or so, and that he believes the public understands the need to maintain and repair the school buildings.
“The maintenance is such that they have to spend some major bucks to keep things going,” Mr. Wapner said. “It’s just a lot of infrastructure, and the middle school alone is an expensive building to maintain and work on.”
During Tuesday night’s meeting, Dr. DeAngelo repeatedly expressed his desire that members of the public come to him with their concerns and questions about the project. He said the school district hopes to remain as transparent as possible throughout this whole process.
The Chatham Central School District will be posting all information and updates about the project online at www.chathamcentralschools.com, including the presentation given Tuesday evening.
The next school board meeting will take place on February 27 at 6 p.m. in the high school library.