Addressing overcrowding at Port Chester High School will remain the focus of any building project.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf --><br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->Claire K. Racine|Westmore News<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->
Addressing overcrowding at Port Chester High School will remain the focus of any building project.

Claire K. Racine|Westmore News
After months of lengthy school board meetings where person after person got up to speak during public comments about the proposed building project, the first meeting of the new year was markedly different. Only one community member and the Port Chester Board of Education spoke about the building project that was soundly voted down by residents in December. Even they did not focus on the rejected project but instead expressed the desire to unite everyone behind a new one the entire community can support.

"One thing I believe we all do agree on is the need for our district to address increasing overcrowding and to build additional classrooms as soon as possible," Board President Bob Johnson said at the start of the meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 12.

This was the first school board meeting after 60 percent of voters cast ballots against a $41.5 million construction bond that would have featured a major addition at Port Chester High School and funded smaller projects at the other district schools.

"In the coming weeks your board of education shall examine multiple issues to determine the best course of action in dealing with overcrowding and the design of a new bond project and vote," Johnson told the audience, many of them King Street School parents present to see their children pick up awards later in the meeting. Besides studying the community's voting patterns, the school board plans to focus on improving communication and outreach through mailings and newsletters, which will hopefully increase voter interest and engagement. They also plan to figure out "how to best utilize focus groups, forums and other forms of communications that can ensure quality input from a broad voice of stakeholders and community members and help determine what type of project would garner broad support," Johnson said.

Crowd stays quiet

Despite a decent showing of community members, only one got up to speak about the building project.

"The problem's not going to go away," said Peter Mutino. "We're still going to have overcrowdedness, especially at the high school."

The most common complaint Mutino said he heard about the failed bond was the lack of community involvement in the development of the plan. Mutino, a former school board member, agreed with Johnson about the need for focus groups and even offered to serve on a committee if one is formed.

Many in the audience who chose not to speak up were members of the Taxpayers Alliance Group, which actively campaigned against the building project the board put forward. They left after public comments, but school board member Jim Dreves spoke about their presence towards the end of the meeting. The Board of Education vice president took their silence on Tuesday as a sign that they are ready to move forward and work with the district. "The Taxpayers Alliance Group is not-and they've said this-they are not against a bond. They were against this bond," Dreves said. The bond was voted down and "by not getting up and gloating over that, they sent us a message that they want to be involved and they care about the students and taxpayers in the district."

"We're all on the same page," Dreves added. "We want a bond. We want the right bond."

Board member Carolee Brakewood said that whatever project is chosen next needs to have the right number of classrooms and amenities to support students' needs.

"We can do things better this time around," she said. "We do need community input-that is crystal clear to me. We also need a bond-that is crystal clear to me."

The board did not offer a detailed timeline about what will happen next besides Johnson's initial statement that the district will be working on the issue in the coming weeks.

"Once we have completed our examination of these issues, we shall develop a new proposal to be put before the voters," the board president said. "This process will be deliberate, scientific and involve our community and voters."