The Clarkstown Central School District Bond Proposal: Pros and Cons

Pros-And-Cons

In a December 2nd, 2015 article in the Journal News we read in summary:

During the decades of Rockland’s postwar boom, the Clarkstown school district built a dozen schools to educate the children of those who came here looking for a slice of suburban life. Two generations later, those schools are falling apart.

On December 10, Clarkstown residents will vote on whether to authorize $36.2 million in bonds to repair schools. It’s one of the largest bonds issued by a school district in county history.

According to school officials, many of Clarkstown’s buildings – including 10 elementary schools, one middle school and two high-schools – haven’t been upgraded in decades. Now they’re in need of a host of fixes and improvements that range from leaky roofs and aging boilers to outdated electrical systems. 

A detailed look at Clarkstown infrastructure lists deficiencies at every school. Two of the most expensive fixes are recommended for the district’s high schools: $6.2 million for Clarkstown North and $6.9 million for Clarkstown South. Felix Festa Middle School is listed as needing $6.8 million in repairs. Even some of the smaller K-5 campuses, like Little Tor Elementary, require more than $1 million each in repairs and upgrades.

The issue of aging buildings has long been contentious in Clarkstown. In 2009, voters rejected a $187 million capital bond to repair the district’s aging facilities over fears that it would raise taxes too much in a time of economic stress.  This time around, the debate has been fueled by social media, including a barrage of posts on local Facebook pages.

Rockland Voice has solicited opinion letters from two former CCSD board members in order to present both positions to the voters. The PRO position is presented below by Karen Kasman and the CON position by Alan Katz. The Facebook Page Clarkstown: WTDWYTK will publish a link to this article where discussion of Kasman’s and Katz’s commentary will be welcomed.

Advocate For ‘YES’ Vote – Karen Kasman

Karen Kasman is a former member of the CCSD Board of Education. She served two terms, from 2000 to 2006. Karen co-founded the Clarkstown Family Resource Center Partnership 501(c)(3) in 2000, and as President, helped to guide the formation of Family Resource Centers in Clarkstown’s schools. She has also been active in PTA, having been elected as an officer throughout many of her 12 years of involvement. She has served on the Clarkstown Coalition for Drug Free Schools, as a Board Member of the Rockland 21st Century Collaborative for Children and Youth and is a graduate of Leadership Rockland, Class of 2002.  Karen has lived in Clarkstown with her family for over 20 years and has two children who have graduated from Clarkstown Schools.

I am writing in support of Clarkstown Central School District’s facilities improvement bond – the CCSD 2015 Bond for Critical Repairs. In 2000, I ran for a seat on the Board of Education because I thought our buildings, the backbone of our district, were being ignored and falling into disrepair at the expense of building a swimming pool.  Now, 15 years later, I am still advocating for the same thing, fixing our buildings!  On December 10th, we have the opportunity to vote YES on the bond, YES to repairing, replacing and upgrade our failing critical systems, AND YES to receiving 55% in State Aid (our tax money coming back to us) while doing it.

This proposal will allow the district to issue a bond for the maximum amount of $36,161,198. This money can only be used for the district-wide critical repairs in this bond, which include roofs, boilers and electrical work.

The nuts and bolts:

  • Roofs There is over 1,000,000 square feet of roof spread across our 16 buildings, 70% of which have far exceeded their life expectancy. Many of these roofs leak directly into the hallways of our buildings. The replacements will be made with high-performing materials that have improved insulation and thermal performance.
  • Boilers: Four boilers will be replaced at the middle and high school buildings, with improvements to the space and supporting equipment.  These boilers require constant repairs and have frequently caused interruptions to the school day when they malfunction. Replacement of these heating systems will greatly improve comfort and efficiency, while lowering annual fuel costs.
  • Electrical Systems / Transformers: Twelve buildings will receive improvements to their electrical systems. Most of the transformers in our district are original to the buildings and are decades past their life span. Improvements will include transformers and feeder cable replacements, switchboards and circuit breakers, along with other modernizations that impact safety and reliability.


Critical vs. Emergency:
  The term “critical” in “critical repairs” refers to items that, when they fail, would close a school. If these items are left in their current state, without repair, the likelihood of a disastrous infrastructure failure greatly increases.  If we don’t repair and replace the critical infrastructure of our District buildings, we face escalating costs, constant class-time interruptions and the possible loss of the use of one or more of our buildings.  When they fail, it will be an emergency at a much higher cost.

Timeline:  As I learned during my six years on the Board, nothing in the educational system happens fast. It takes about one and a half years to draw up the engineering plans, receive approval from the New York State Education Department, go through the competitive bidding process and line up the crews and supplies to actually start the work.

Since the repairs that are being proposed are critical items in each building, the buildings will have to be taken “off line” or out of service while repairs are being completed.  Therefore, repairs will be done in the summer months while schools are closed.  This time frame will also allow for the relocation of camps and summer programs so as to disrupt the students and community as little as possible. The work has been outlined in three organized stages that will be completed in the summers of 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Waiting another six months to a year to bond for these critical repairs will do nothing but let our buildings fall further into disrepair!

The Cost and Paying for it:  The proposed amount to be bonded has been thoroughly researched by a professional engineering firm, and includes projected cost increases for the timeline through 2019, as well as a contingency margin for unexpected work directly related to the repairs stated in the Plan.  The maximum allowable amount to be spent is $36,161,198, but the District expects to ultimately spend less than this amount. The most recent CCSD construction project at the Congers school building came in nearly 20% under budget, which means $1.1M of the $6.5M approved for that project was never used or bonded.  The actual monies spent will be bonded for once all repairs are completed.

The District has received, in writing from the State Education Department, a commitment to pay State Aid on the great majority of this project (except for the Administration building), which covers 55% of both the bond amount and the associated interest. That means approximately 55 cents on the dollar will be paid for by the State. This is OUR tax money being returned to us!  This money cannot be taken away from us once the bond is approved by us, the voters, and the work is completed as outlined.

The remaining 45% of the bond cost will be paid for through the District’s annual budget.  In recent years, the District allocated $1.5 million per year toward Capital Improvements.  For the past four years, the Board has used this money on critical projects – a boiler and transformer at North High School, and two sections of roof at Felix Festa (NO State Aid). It is proposed that the $1.5 million be moved from the Capital Improvements budget line to the Debt Service line.  By doing so, each year the $1.5 million will be made in payment towards the remaining balance that State Aid (our tax dollars) doesn’t cover. This is not free – it’s just a better use of money already included in our tax bill. By moving the existing budgeted funds to the Debit Service line, there is no increase in tax dollars.  It remains neutral.

Trust:   The CURRENT Board of Education has done everything it possibly can to answer every question the community has regarding THIS bond. That does not mean that everyone likes the answers.  It doesn’t mean some community members aren’t going to take the information presented (or seek out their own unrelated information) 0r the actions of THIS Board of Education, relating to THIS bond, interpret it and then purport their interpretation to be fact. That is certainly their right, but it does a huge disservice to the entire community.

Again, THIS Board of Education and Administration has been very detailed in laying out the complete facts of this bond proposal at many, many public meetings (no less than eight public informational meetings, presentations to almost every PTA and PTSA unit, and participation in numerous local community group meetings). Every piece of information included in the presentation of the complete plan, videos of the meetings, engineering reports, bond resolution language, absentee ballots and a full list of FAQs have been posted to the District’s Bond Website. (You can also find information on voting districts and polling locations.)

Will the Board of Education make the repairs as presented?  Yes, they are legally restricted to only spend this money on the work stated in the presented plan, which is on file at the District Clerk’s office, and has been submitted to the State Department of Education.  By law, they cannot spend this money on anything else beyond what is in the plan.

The Bond Proposition and Vote:  The Bond proposition has been prepared by the District’s Bond Counsel, a well reputed law firm. The Bond proposition that is presented on the ballot is the “condensed form” that legally represents the full proposition and associated plans, which is shared on the above web site and will also be laminated and available at every polling station. Some community members have claimed a “bait and switch” of the condensed form versus the complete resolution – however, the FACT is the Board of Education is legally bound by the entire proposition and filed plans. This is the standard process used during every school bond vote around the state. The bond resolution mentions that the bond is ultimately covered by tax dollars. Most school bonds are authored this way, and the payment plan described above explains that the District has a written commitment to state aid and existing budget dollars (tax dollars) to pay off the bond.

The bond does contain wording that allows for monies to be moved from one line of repair to another, if for instance one roof comes in a little bit under budget and another a little bit more. Any movement of monies must be approved by a public “change order” vote by the Board of Education, during a public meeting. As an example, a few change orders were issued during the reconstruction of the Congers school building, yet everything approved was within the plan and the project was completed under budget. This does not allow for monies to be spent on anything outside of the plan – it is specifically restricted to items within the plan, and may not exceed the maximum approved amount. Some have implied this is nefarious – the fact is, this is a standard clause and helps ensure the entire project can be completed.

This is how the work will be completed within this proposal, these are the rules and laws on how the bond money can be spent, this is the timeline within which the work will be done, and everyone has access to all the information and how we the taxpayers are going to pay for it.

The question:  Is this the right time? Without hesitation, YES!  This District has been sorely remiss in not bonding for repairs and receiving State Aid to help fund those repairs for over 20+ years.  We could discuss the many reasons for that, but we can’t go back in time and change it.

The only thing we can do right now is move forward and Vote YES on December 10th and fix these roofs, boilers and electrical systems.  If we don’t do it now, we will pay a much higher price later when these items fail. There is no “threat” intended, it is reality.  If you don’t fix the roof on your house today while it is leaking, what are you going to face in another five years in repairs and damage?

Some community members have rallied for a NO vote. Many have planned and come out strong to support the YES vote. Some naysayers are labeling these supporters as “bond cheerleaders” for the Board of Education and the Administration. They are partially correct.  We are cheerleaders, but cheerleaders for OUR community, OUR school district and OUR children.

Please join your fellow community members on December 10th, and vote to move this District forward by voting YES.

Karen Kasman

 

Advocate For NO Vote – Alan D. Katz

Alan Katz, a former Clarkstown School Board trustee (1991-2000), has led several companies in the Marketing services industry, with a specialty in Mergers and Acquisitions. He has lived in New City for 45 years, and is a product of Clarkstown Schools.

George Santayana, the 19th century Spanish philosopher once said… “Those who cannot learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”  This time honored quote has never been more relevant than on the eve of the December 10th School District bond vote. The recent history of Bond votes in Clarkstown has not been pretty:

The Mega Bond of 2008.
This $180MM+ bond—the largest ever put forth in New York history—was sold to the public as the only possible solution for our District’s facility needs–and comically– to a bug and vermin infestation at North High School.  It was also filled with enough pork to virtually guarantee passage in each school community.  We were told this might be our last chance to get state aid. And in an eerie case of foreshadowing, the bond was also billed as the only way to keep Congers Elementary School open so as to secure critically needed votes.

Anyone questioning the validity of any aspect of the plan was immediately deemed by the Board to be an evil child hater who wanted all property values to sink to zero.  Luckily, the bond failed by a 3-1 margin, because the ensuing recession would have caused steady double digit tax increases or insolvency.  And the state aid percentage has remained unchanged ever since…

The North High School Turf Field Bond
For reasons known only to the Board and Administration, this bond did not include bleachers,  an obvious expectation by the voters, which took another 2-3 years to be installed, without state aid dollars, costing the district hundreds of thousands of dollars as well as disrupting North High graduations.

The Case of the “Found” Bond Money
Bond money which had been authorized by the public to be used on approved projects was ”misplaced” in unlabeled bank accounts and then mysteriously “found” a few years later when there was a shortfall in an upcoming budget.  A clear answer as to the discrepancy was never given.

The Congers Elementary Fiasco
In perhaps the greatest fraud ever perpetrated, the Board and Administration reneged on what was known to virtually every citizen of Clarkstown—that the vote on the $6.5 MM bond would be a referendum on keeping Congers open as an elementary school.   In fact, there is solid evidence to suggest that remediation needs at the school were intentionally overstated in order to ensure a preconceived outcome– closing Congers instead of a different school– in the wake of falling enrollments and a state mandate to “right size” our space.  And in a classic case of irony that would make O’Henry chuckle…the Mega Bond which promised to save Congers failed and the school stayed open…the Congers only bond passed and the school was closed!

In its most cruel moment, the District created a Hunger Gameslike atmosphere by pitting three schools against each other to see which two would “survive”.  Inevitably, Congers was chosen, which essentially wasted 6.5 MM of our tax dollars.

Which brings us to the current $36 MM bond, dubbed “bare bones” by the District.  Oddly, in what can best be described as an out of body experience, the Board inadvertently takes itself to task by declaring that the bond is needed to overcome years of neglect and lack of planning. It then takes itself off the hook by stating that “it doesn’t matter how we got here”. With all due respect, IT DOES MATTER.  Why hasn’t there been a consistent maintenance, repair and replacement plan as there was from 1992-2007?

Once again the Board has orchestrated an enormous hoax, attempting to backdoor a ‘yes’ vote by staging the vote smack in the middle of Holiday season, with the hope that no one will be paying much attention.  We are expected to approve a bond with no clear direction, no long term plan, no real financial strategy and with the clear mandate from the state that we must downsize or risk being on our own financially.  And in exactly the type of situation Santayana feared, it is likely that some of this bond will also not be eligible for aid.  If we close buildings (or repurpose in Board speak) which the District admitted was a virtual certainty in its Feb 2015 presentation, the work on those buildings cannot qualify, just like last year.

Trust us”, they proclaim.  “We promise this time will be different…Santayana is wrong.  We have told you everything.  This bond will be the most above board bond in the history of the universe.”  There are many good people in Clarkstown who want to believe them.  They have adopted the catchy slogan- “roofs, heat, electric-the BASICS” and placed signs on their lawns, because they believe the Board will do exactly what it promised…and then the official proposition was published.  This is the ONLY document that matters.  The wording here is what the public is being asked to authorize:

  • That the Board of Education of the Clarkstown Central School District, in the County of Rockland, New York (the “District”), is hereby authorized to construct infrastructure and other improvements to various District buildings, and to expend therefor (sic) an amount not to exceed $36,161,198: (b) that a tax is hereby voted in the amount of not to exceed $36,161,198 to finance such cost, such tax to be levied an collected in installments in such years and in such amounts the Board of Education shall determine; and (c) that in anticipation of said tax, bonds of the District are hereby authorized to be issued in the amount of not ot exceed $36,161,198, and a tax is hereby voted to pay the interest on said bonds as the same shall be due and payable.

No mention of which schools will be repaired, projects undertaken, timelines to be followed.  In essence, a $36,161,198 blank check for the District to allocate on projects at its discretion, on its time-frame.  The average voter has virtually no idea as to the content of the proposition.  And remember, this was the same Board that hid behind the language of the Congers proposition, telling people it was their fault if they didn’t read it carefully, as if it were the fine print on a sweepstakes ticket.

The supporters were quick to declare that the language is perfectly allowable…and they may very well be correct.  But this is what happens when the public loses trust in the Board.  After last year’s fiasco, people are rightfully hypersensitive.  If the Board had respect for their constituents, it would have made sure that the document voted on was beyond “allowable”; that is was complete, open and fully honest.  Would it have been so difficult to add the schools receiving boilers, roofs, and HVAC work, along with the projected timeline, to the proposition language?   Is the board arrogant, or just tone deaf?

Add to the mix a lame duck Superintendent, expired union contracts, and a Board that is selling this bond with the high pressure, hard sell tactics of a used car salesman and we have a clear and obvious solution.  We need a time out. We need to put a stop to this runaway train of half truths, parsing of words and deceit.  We must renounce the politics of fear and general disdain for the public.  We must vote NO on this bond proposal – Not because we hate children, want our property values lower, or are too stupid to understand what’s good for us.  Quite the opposite.  We must demand better.  Better representation on the Board. Better Superintendent choices.  We must begin the process of a true, impartial and comprehensive evaluation of our district that results in a long term strategy that meets the needs of our community for the next ten years.  Only then should we go to the public and ask for their approval.

Sadly, this bond does not come close to meeting those mandates.

Alan D. Katz

[Editorial Note:  Rockland Voice takes no position on the bond vote and is providing the above opinion pieces solely as a public service.]

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