RESIDENTS TO VOTE ON SCHOOLS INFRASTRUCTURE BOND THIS TUESDAY
December 1, 2013 -- On Tuesday, December 3, residents of the North Shore School District will have the opportunity to vote on a $19.6 million bond proposition to fund infrastructure improvements in the district’s three elementary schools, middle school, high school, transportation facility, and administrative building. At its August 29th meeting, the Board of Education discussed the proposal in detail and at its subsequent meeting, on September 12, unanimously passed a resolution to put it up for a public vote.
Dr. Melnick explained at the two meetings, and a community informational session the following month, that the decision to finance these particular projects through a bond came about after a long review process.
The first step involved a state-mandated Building Conditions Survey that is conducted every five years and an annual visual inspection of district facilities. Based on its 2012 inspection, the engineering firm Savin offered its opinion on what improvements and repairs were likely to be needed over the next 5 to 10 years. Those recommendations, Dr. Melnick explained, included more than $30 million worth of projects.
Next, building committees were formed, each consisting of the principal, head custodian, PTA Presidents, faculty members, interested parents, Assistant Superintendent of Business Olivia Buatsi and School Board members. With input and recommendations from the committees, Dr. Melnick said the proposals, which now included both "necessities" and "nice to do" projects, amounted to $110 million worth of work. Eliminating the “niceties,” that number was whittled back down to about $30 million by Dr. Melnick, Ms. Buatsi, and John Hall, Director of Buildings and Grounds.
In the third stage, a district-wide bond committee, made up of dozens of residents, was formed to offer advice on which of those improvements the district ought to pursue. Based on that feedback, the Board and Superintendent decided on the projects that would be included in the bond, with the total cost estimated to be $19.6 million. (See graphics to the right)
Some of the larger projects eliminated from the original $30 million proposal included traffic improvements at the Middle School and High School, and a parking lot at Glen Head Elementary School.
At the September 12th BOE meeting, Ms. Buatsi explained that the borrowed funds would be repaid over a 15 year term, and that the borrowing would be spread out over two stages. The first sale of bonds would be for $7 million in 2014, and the second for $12.6 million in 2015. At that same meeting, in response to a question if would be better to borrow all $19.6 million to take advantage of historically low interest rates, the district's bond attorney explained that arbitrage regulations prohibit districts from borrowing now and holding onto the funds to spend at a time relatively far off into the future. He also stated that it is advantageous to the district to phase in the borrowing over time to keep the debt service relatively level by juxtaposing new debt service with old debt service, and that it was not wise to pay interest on money that the district was not using.
Dr. Melnick has said that whether or not the bond passes, these are projects that will have to be done in the near future and that financing them through a bond is preferable to including the expenditures as line items in annual budgets. Debt service, he has explained, is excluded from the tax levy limit, and by spreading payments out over several years at historically low interest rates, the district would avoid spikes in the budget and tax levy that would in turn put pressure on the district to make cuts to educational programs. In addition, the expense of the projects would be shared by today’s residents as well as by future taxpayers who will also benefit from the improvements. The superintendent has also said that the formula that is used to determine the tax levy limit penalizes districts that pay down their debt, as was the case with Manhasset this past budget season.
At both the August 29th and September 12th meetings, each of the seven school board trustees offered strong support for the proposal.
Trustee Maryanne Russo said that she had run for school board on a platform of fiscal responsibility and that paying for these projects through a bond was the most fiscally responsible way to go.
Trustee Sara Jones stated that the projects are necessities, and that if the district has to include the projects as expenditures in annual budgets rather than financing them through a bond, it would be significantly more painful to taxpayers.
Trustee Tom Kniernam raised the example of Manhasset as a lesson of how districts who do not carry debt are greatly penalized under the Tax Levy limit and said that debt service under the bond proposal would decline over a period of years.
Trustee Michael Nightingale stated that as individuals it’s not always wise to carry a lot of debt, but that it does not necessarily work that way for school districts under the tax levy limit. And, that while $19 million is a high number, the timing is right with regard to interest rates to put up the bond proposal now. He also emphasized that the projects were necessities and not “niceties.”
Trustee Toni Labbate said projects were identified according to type of need using criteria such as “instructional need” and “health and safety need”, and that doing the work now was fiscally responsible, since costs of emergency repairs are greater, and could result in loss of use and damage to facilities.
Trustee Amy Beyer stated that the district was taking advantage of today’s interest rates. In addition she said, the process of determining what needs to be done was very comprehensive, involved building tours at all levels, and involved the community. She stated that without a bond, budget votes would be on higher tax levy increases, making them more difficult to pass.
Board President Herman Berliner said that he believed the original $30 million proposal originally under consideration was not fiscally responsible, but that the $19.6 million proposal is because it includes only necessary improvements.
After the Board’s decision in September to put the proposal up for a public vote, the District held two community informational sessions in October, one of which involved a walk-through of proposed projects, and a detailed presentation of the proposed work by Mr. Hall at the most recent Board of Education meeting on November 21st. (Click here for presentation)
At these meetings a few residents expressed skepticism of the bond proposal while others voiced their support.
At the October 1st informational meeting, Glen Head resident and bond committee member, Larry Ruisi, stated that he believed it was a "no-brainer to do the bond now if it is for must-do projects - considering the current finance interest rate environment." He also explained that because of regulations, costs are significantly higher for schools than for doing improvements on one's home.
Sea Cliff resident Anthony Losquadro questioned whether a bond should be put up at this particular time and described some of the projects as "over-kill." In particular, he questioned whether it was necessary to install air conditioning in the high school weight room, and whether the state required the improvements.
Dr. Melnick said that the basement room does not meet the state minimum air ventilation standard, and that since the air-conditioning is "minimally more expensive" than a standard ventilation system, it makes sense to install the air conditioning since that would enable residents to use the weight room during the summer. A few minutes later, President Berliner added that "it is our kids who are in a facility that is not properly ventilated. I do not need a letter from the state. If we are not doing what is right for the kids, then we should correct it." Mr. Losquadro stated that he did not have a ventilation system or air conditioning in his gym.
During Public Comment at the November 21st board meeting, Mr. Losquadro said that he had walked around and inspected some of the buildings, and that he understood that some of the improvements seemed necessary, but that he still believed that there “is a lot in the bond proposal that is overkill.” He questioned replacing floor tile and the cost of retaining walls at the Sea Cliff and Glenwood Landing playgrounds.
Mr. Hall replied that it is not possible to predict the cost exactly, and that the estimates try to take into account possible unforeseen conditions that can arise during the work. He cited as an example masonry work at Glenwood which revealed a need to replace a deteriorated metal lintel that could not be seen with a visual inspection. Mr. Hall later said with regard to replacing vinyl abestos floor tile, that it was a health and safety issue and that the district would avoid the likelihood of costly emergency abatements later on.
Dr. Melnick stated that the district could only spend on the projects, including the contingency items, that were specifically identified in the bond proposal. If the work comes in under the $19.6 million, he said, the full amount would not be borrowed.
Mr. Losquadro questioned the work on the Sea Cliff roof, saying that it is only 13 years old. Mr. Hall said that the warranty had expired for portions of the roof and that is the work that would be done first, and that the replacement of the roof on the more recently installed part would be held off until after that warranty expires in 2017.
Sea Cliff resident Jerry Romano said that he believed many of these projects could have been avoided with regular maintenance, and asked if that was true. Mr. Hall replied that the district has been doing repair work – pointing and replacing bricks, which he said, could be seen on the slides he had shown in his PowerPoint presentation. The roofs being replaced, he said, are beyond their warranties and the electrical panels that are being replaced are full after years of adding outlets. The water service to Glen Head School leaked in 2012, he continued. He said that Buildings and Grounds had not been ignoring the issues.
Other residents expressed agreement with the board’s position that the work needed to be done and that the bond was the best way to finance the work.
Roger Friedman of Sea Cliff stated that the asbestos floor tiles were health and safety concerns and that many of the cracks in the masonry shown in the slides appeared to be structural issues that re-pointing will not address.
Other supporters of the proposal raised concerns about the impact that paying for the projects through the regular budget, rather than financing them through a bond, would have on the tax levy, and as a result on the classroom and other educational and extra-curricular programs.
All eligible voters in the District will be able to express their opinion on the issue at the ballot box on Tuesday December 3rd in the high school gymnasium from 7 am to 10 pm.
CLICK HERE FOR LINK TO PROPOSED CONSTRUCTION PROJECT DESCRIPTIONS PREPARED BY CONSTRUCTION PROGRAM SOLUTIONS
CLICK HERE FOR LINK TO BUILDINGS AND GROUNDS DIRECTOR JOHN HALL'S POWERPOINT PRESENTATION ON THE PROPOSED IMPROVEMENTS
CLICK HERE FOR ARTICLE ON OCTOBER 1ST BOND INFORMATIONAL SESSION
The proposal also includes security system improvements at the Administrative Building and the Transportation Facility