Secretary Steve Simmons and Chairperson Ana Gonzalez take notes while listening to Joseph Fuller of Fuller and D’Angelo P.C, Architects and Planners go over three options to solve overcrowding in the Port Chester School District during the Port Chester Bond Advisory Committee’s first meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 13 in the Port Chester Middle School Library. 
Casey Watts|Westmore News
Secretary Steve Simmons and Chairperson Ana Gonzalez take notes while listening to Joseph Fuller of Fuller and D’Angelo P.C, Architects and Planners go over three options to solve overcrowding in the Port Chester School District during the Port Chester Bond Advisory Committee’s first meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 13 in the Port Chester Middle School Library. Casey Watts|Westmore News

The change of venue to accommodate drama club practice seemed to be fitting for the first meeting of the Port Chester Bond Advisory Committee, which is tasked with creating a solution to the overcrowding in the school district. Their first meeting was Tuesday, Sept. 13, and in order for construction to begin in 2017, the committee has to present a bond proposal to the Board of Education by Nov. 1, something most of the members vowed to try their best to do.

Instead of being in the middle school auditorium, 27 out of the 30 representatives and small audience crammed into the back of the library and sat around tables arranged in a large “U.” The meeting began with Board of Education President Jim Dreves thanking everyone for coming and saying that the school board will not be directly involved with the committee—their purpose is to provide information about the schools. Other than that, the panel will be completely free rein.

Before he exited the room, Dreves left the group of people with one message: “Remember the focus is the children.”

With that, those gathered were left to their own devices. They quickly elected Ana Gonzalez as their chairperson to lead the meetings, Keith Morlino as their alternate chairperson and Steve Simmons volunteered to be secretary. All of them had kids who came through the Port Chester educational system or are currently going through. The only exception was Greg Guarino, who graduated from Port Chester High School in 2009. It was quickly established that they all have a love for Port Chester and the school system and they all are proud of the district and the education it provides.

But they know overcrowding is a large issue and will consider all options, even the controversial ones of changing the historic façade of Port Chester High School.

“We need to focus on what the community does want and what they need,” Gonzalez said. “Then start going down to objections.”

“A community can say ‘I don’t want anything,’ and then what?” she asked. “But first, what do we need?”

The currently available solutions

Fuller and D’Angelo P.C, Architects and Planners drew up three options that were presented after a failed bond referendum in December 2015. The options are building additions onto Port Chester High School on the corner of Tamarack Road and College Avenue or taking away some of the parking lot on Tamarack Road for an expansion, relocating either the fifth or ninth grade to Port Chester Middle School and adding onto that building to accommodate the new students, or converting Park Avenue School into a ninth grade academy and building additions at John F. Kennedy School and King Street School for the displaced elementary students.

In order to create a lasting solution without relocating students, the high school would need 14 additional classrooms. The elementary schools would need 15 new classrooms, and if the committee decides to do away with the John F. Kennedy Early Learning Center, the elementary schools would need 30 new classrooms.

The Board of Education is also looking to replace the high school field with artificial turf for year-round use, add a press box and an instructional space of instrumental/choral programs and give the high school a regulation-sized gym.

None of these choices sat well with the group; however, there was a general consensus that they would have to consider all options, no matter the opposition.

“The turf field and the parking lot at King Street and the work they are going to do on Edison (School) should not be in the bond,” member Thomas Ceruzzi said. “That’s more money in the bond that’s not necessary. The district has the money to do it.”

This opinion was shot down by Simmons, who said they did not yet have enough information to say what the district does and does not have money to do, especially if it means raising the already high school tax.

Debra Scocchera agreed about the school tax, which is something that sits close to home for her because her parents have to move out of Port Chester partly because the academic expense is too high.

“We have to figure out what we need before we think about the cost at the beginning of the process,” member Joe Lodato said. “We have to fulfill the need. We can dream a little bit, we have to at least be creative.”

Bond committee member Eric Rios chimed in and said: “There might be a scenario where it does make sense to relocate the ninth or fifth grade. We may not like the answer, but that may be the answer.”

Ideas were thrown around such as adding eight classrooms to the high school instead of 14 or building upwards on the high school, but nothing will be further discussed or considered until the board has more information on each school.

How to handle finding the right answer

Architects Joseph Fuller and John D’Angelo attended the meeting to answer questions about their designs, but their presence was premature because the Bond Advisory Committee first needed to have consolidated and meaningful questions to ask, Gonzalez explained. This was not the board’s only chance to talk with the architects; they agreed to attend any Tuesday meeting they were invited to. Therefore Fuller suggested they form subcommittees to help tackle the problem. Gonzalez took to the idea and called for the formation of sub-groups to gather data such as school populations, which will be released on Oct. 5, and possible alternative solutions.

The subcommittees for the high, middle and elementary schools and athletics will be formed via an email sent out by Simmons before their second meeting.

“We need to start with the high school, otherwise we’re going to be splintered all over the district and lose our way. (The high school is) the flagship. Start there and see how it affects everything coming down,” member Pat Rinello said. If the ninth grade is relocated, they may not have to touch the high school, but they will have to add onto the middle school. Or if the ninth graders stay, they may not have to touch the middle school, but they will have to build onto the high school.

“We need to be open to all the options,” Rinello continued. “If your mind is closed, how are we going to move forward? You may think ‘I hate moving the ninth grade,’ but it might be the best option.”

Simmons pointed out that the same line of thought and open mindedness would be needed when they consider altering the high school.

“That’s not going to happen,” Ceruzzi jumped in.

But Lodato was having none of that. “You have to stop saying it will never happen,” Lodato replied. “We can’t shut ourselves out and believe that everyone thinks this way. You might be proven right, but we can’t shut it out.”

After a vote, the committee agreed that Port Chester High School was to be their starting point. Therefore, their next meeting will be Tuesday, Sept. 20 at 6:30 p.m. at the high school so everyone sitting on the board can see the building and know the layout before they consider how to go about fixing the overcrowding in that building. Some of the members will be touring the high school while school is in session to see the crowded classrooms firsthand. Their meetings are open to the public.

The advisory committee will be meeting every Tuesday at 7 p.m. with their last meeting on Oct. 25. The tentative meeting place will be at the Port Chester Middle School library, with the exception of Sept. 20. This schedule and the location are subject to change.