Difficult Decision For Clarkstown’s Board of Education – Will A Crack In Congers Elementary Crack The School Board’s Budget?
To: The Editor Rockland Voice
From: Sean Magee, Congers Resident and Taxpayer
The Clarkstown Central School District’s (CCSD) Board of Education (BoE) has a very difficult and important decision to make on February 5th. A decision on a community topic that has been in discussion before the unexpected and “emergency” closing of the Congers Elementary School in August of 2013 … 11 days before school was to start.
CCSD’s BoE needs to make a decision on this topic, amongst others, of whether or not to close an elementary school within the district to reduce our expenses or do they “pierce the tax cap” by more than 6% in the upcoming budget vote. This dilemma presents many more challenges than meets the eye, particularly now, since our BoE has just spent $4.3mm of our tax dollars on fixing one of the considered closures, Congers Elementary.
So the question still stands…what will they do?
Do they vote in favor of raising our school taxes by more than 6%, forfeit the opportunity to recover almost $2,400,000 in State Aid for the “Reconstruction and Reopening of Congers Elementary School” and then, continue to put millions of additional taxpayer dollars into other elementary schools that need repair. (See NYSED 5 Year Plan for CCSD. Note that since the Congers bond passed and construction will be complete by June 2015, Congers Elementary will have $0 of required infrastructure needs while our other buildings will need millions, as detailed in this 5 Year Facilities Plan).
Or, do they vote in favor of a school budget proposal which will encapsulate the closure of an elementary school within CCSD, and if so, which one? By taking this route, they may be able to create the necessary evil they are looking for in order to stay below the tax cap while maintaining a healthy reserve balance.
As any experienced administrator will tell you, the closure of an elementary school sets the wheels in motion for a district-wide redistricting plan. If done properly here in CCSD, this could result in reducing CCSD’s budget expense line by anywhere from $8MM to $10MM. This $8MM to $10MM “Bogie” is the amount necessary for CCSD to run its education system under New York State’s 2% Tax Cap while maintaining a healthy reserve balance.
Unfortunately, due to poor BoE and Administration communication and leadership, amongst each other and with the community, the attention continues to focus around Congers Elementary as if the Congers Elementary School’s unexpected “emergency” closing coupled with the unforeseen passing of the Congers Bond, is the cause and solution to our budgetary challenges. That could be the furthest thing from the truth and again, it keeps coming back to Congers Elementary because of very poor communication skills and complete disregard for transparency with the community of CCSD.
The Congers “emergency” closing in August of 2013, coincidently, was also on or around the same time two of our board members (Mike Aglialoro, President and Chris Conti, then Vice President) were approached by our Superintendent, Dr. J. Thomas Morton and our Business Official, Mr. John LaNave, who suggested to Mr. Aglialoro and Mr. Conti that the BoE may want to consider closing one or two elementary schools so that CCSD can begin to reduce its expenses. Otherwise, the administration and BoE will have to develop and pass budget proposals that will exceed the New York State 2% Tax Cap. (It should be noted that in order for a NY State School Budget that exceeds the 2% Tax Cap, a voter approval of 60% (a supermajority) is necessary. In Clarkstown, this is a very difficult feat given our already extraordinarily high tax base).
So onto the “emergency” closing…
At that time, Mr. Aglialoro and Mr. Conti declined the suggestion and a few weeks later, Congers Elementary was deemed “unsafe” to be occupied due to a “crack” in the gymnasium wall. This was substantiated by a “FINAL” Report developed by CSArch, the architectural and engineering firm solicited and hired by CCSD’s Business Official, Mr. John LaNave. Please also note that at no time was a crack monitor ever used to determine if there was any separation of the wall. Measuring a fractured wall is a standard practice that any engineering firm would have taken if the “crack” truly presented a safety issue to any person, particularly in a building that housed children and resides in a residential and heavily trafficked area of the community. The measuring and monitoring practice shows if the “crack” is worsening, ultimately to the point where the wall is so compromised that it will crumble and fall. This never happened at Congers Elementary. Why?
We’ll go back to this at a later date, but this should give the Clarkstown community an idea of why the Hamlet of Congers continues to be enraged. The community recognizes the deception and lies, and that is something we will not, nor should anyone, tolerate.
For now, let’s fast forward 3 months to November of 2013. The BoE majority, after much discussion, debate and meetings with the community, and not just the Congers community, decided that the Congers Elementary School should be repaired and reopened as an elementary school, but to be fair to all of Clarkstown Residents, they put it up to the people of CCSD to vote and they were VERY explicit in what we were all voting on. (CCSD Administration and BoE approved Bond Flyer.) This was what the public relied on before making a decision of which way to vote.
On February 4th 2014, the bond went up for the people of CCSD to decide, YES or NO, for the “Reconstruction and Reopening of Congers Elementary School.” Keep in mind, the BoE and Administration were explicit in the Bond Referendum Flyer to say “Reopening of Congers Elementary School.” They did not say “Reconstruction of The Building” or “Reopening of the Building,” they said “Reconstruction and Reopening of Congers Elementary School.”
The $6.5MM bond passed with an overwhelming supermajority of 60% of the district voters saying YES. The district voters said YES to the Reconstruction and Reopening of The Congers Elementary School.
Again, prior to the vote, the bond vote details were explicitly explained by the CCSD Administration, Dr. J. Thomas Morton, CCSD Business Official, Mr. John LaNave and the CCSD BoE. They put this out to the CCSD community in print, email and via the district website with the attached CCSD Administration and BoE developed and approved information flyer. The bond information flyer not only detailed the cost to the district voters and the State Aid appeal, but it clearly stated what the district voters were voting on, which was again, “The Reconstruction and Reopening of the Congers Elementary School.” This information flyer is now being referred to by many pundits as, “The Contract With The People!”
So now the BoE is at the crossroads of right or wrong. If they choose to close Congers, do they dishonor the will of the people, which will bring into question their intent and the misrepresentation of the bond. Additionally, closing Congers Elementary will forfeit $2.4MM of State Aid and worst of all, they will have openly confirmed to the people of CCSD that they have taken $4.3MM of our tax money under false pretenses.
So, do they raise our taxes by more than 6% to keep all of our teachers and our elementary schools open or do they close one or two elementary schools in other areas of the district to create the domino effect necessary for a district-wide redistricting which will reduce the CCSD expense line by $8-10MM.
These are very difficult decisions for any BoE. If the BoE chooses to close a school, they will need to decide with a clear conscience, which school in the district helps create that necessary domino effect to redraw all of the district lines which will force a consolidation at the elementary level and reduce our teacher expense salaries in the aggregate amount of $8-10MM.
Unarguably, we cannot turn back the wheels of time. On February 4th, the Congers bond vote passed, the people spoke and now the BoE is charged with upholding our Democratic Process.
In closing, since the BoE has already spent the $4.3mm to fix Congers which will be ready for occupancy by June 26, 2015, the real question is how could anyone in our district expect any Board member, including newly elected BoE members David Gosman and Darin Diamond and recently appointed Kevin Grogan, to vote in favor of closing Congers Elementary? It would be the most fiscally irresponsible and unethical thing to do as a Board Member, experience notwithstanding. Our Board Members take an oath and are tasked with making difficult fiscal and ethical decisions while representing the people versus their own self interests. Given where we are today, coupled with the representation and results of the bond, for any Board Member to choose to vote to close Congers Elementary would be a slap in the face to every Clarkstown Resident. It would say it is OK for the Board to dupe the taxpayers out of $4.3MM.
Aren’t we fed up with Clarkstown Politics? Has it now crept into our Board of Education and Administration? Should this be the case, they would be suspect to questions of their integrity and motives of being on the CCSD Board.
Congers Resident and Taxpayer