After voters thoroughly rejected a building project in December, the Port Chester Board of Education is getting ready to start the process all over. So far they have established a tentative timeline that breaks down the process for putting forward another bond and announced the formation of a bond planning advisory committee that will be made up of a “broad base of community stakeholders.”
The entire board agreed a building project to fix overcrowding, especially at the high school which will reach maximum capacity next year, is desperately needed. There was some discrepancy, however, in their solutions on how to move away from the failed bond referendum.
Creating a committee
Anne Capeci, the only board member to vote against the previous project, recommended creating a committee and drafted language for the board to vote on at their meeting on Mar. 1. The rest of the board, however, criticized the highly detailed aspects of her wording, worried that it might hamstring them when actually forming the group.
“I think the resolution itself is too detailed and too early in time to be appropriate,” said Jim Dreves, who added that he agrees “one hundred percent” that a committee is the way to go.
As they had less than a day to look over the proposal, Board of Education President Bob Johnson recommended holding off on the vote until the following meeting two weeks later.
Capeci took offense to that idea.
“If you vote it down, then you’re saying you’re against community involvement,” she accused the rest of the board.
Part of the reason Capeci felt the district needed to formalize a committee is that several community members had met with the superintendent to discuss overcrowding at the high school. She said that was not something the superintendent should have been doing without the school board.
Her fellow board members, however, disagreed strongly.
“Why can’t he meet with people?” Carolee Brakewood asked. Taxpayers have the right to speak with the superintendent. “He’s not pitching a new idea to them. He’s just listening,” Brakewood said, adding that the school board was accused of not listening to the community during the process leading up to the December bond referendum and, consequently, listening and public involvement should be encouraged.
In the end, the majority of the board decided they wanted to take more time to look over the proposal and overruled Capeci’s request to vote on it immediately.
At their next meeting on Mar. 15, the board revisited the subject of forming a committee and, that time, did so without any heated arguments. Some of the language remained from Capeci’s original proposal but overall it was less detailed, which is what the other board members had requested. The unanimously-agreed-upon committee will be made up of no more than 25 people. Board members, as well as the superintendent—something not included in the initial language—will be able to recommend participants.
Establishing a timeline
Taking it a step farther, the board also approved a rough timeline for the next year that lays out in detail the steps that will be taken to create a new building project and bond.
The dates in the timeline are flexible, Superintendent Dr. Edward Kliszus, Jr. said, and if some tasks are completed earlier, the district will simply move on to the next step.
The flexible nature of the timeline, however, concerned board member Chris Wolff. He worried the district could get locked into dates they could not meet and that people would get irritated if the timeline had to be changed or amended in the future. “I see these dates being a source of major controversy in the future,” he said.
Another issue he had with the timeline dealt with the presentation of cost factors. According to the wording, the cost of the project would initially be presented without state aid, because last time the building aid changed several times.
Wolff agreed that the changed number was a point of controversy in the community but said that putting forward a figure that did not take into account any aid was just as problematic.
“We’re making the same mistake but in a different way,” he said. “A number that doesn’t include aid is not reasonable.”
Maura McAward, the assistant superintendent for business, explained that at that early stage it would not be clear how much of the project would qualify for state aid. Once the district nails down the particulars—new buildings versus additions can impact the amount, for example—the number would firm up, she added.
Based on how the past bond process went, Wolff said communicating clearly and accurately with the public is important, but there are two much bigger issues the district needs to keep in mind.
“Lesson learned: we cannot change that front façade of the building, meaning the one that faces the football field,” he said, referring to Port Chester High School. Furthermore, people—rightly or wrongly—believe the school district is not doing enough to assist the Village of Port Chester with code enforcement and illegal housing.
Involving the community through town hall-type meetings or even through the bond committee will likely only reinforce those two major issues, Wolff added.