Those who attended a meeting at Edna Louise Spear Elementary School in the Port Jefferson school district Oct. 2 seeking clarity on how the public might be leaning regarding a $30 million bond proposal went home empty handed.
About 25 community members of the 100 or so attendees voiced their opinion on the district’s proposal, which administrators presented last month, for upgrades and improvements across the district during the meeting. If the approximately two dozen speakers are a representative sampling of the community, taxpayers seem to be split down the middle two months out from a tentative referendum vote scheduled for Dec. 5.
The proposal has seemingly polarized the community, with those in favor providing student health and safety, as well as maximizing academic and athletic opportunities as evidence to support voting in favor of permitting the district to borrow the money.
“I just thought it would be interesting to get a different perspective on it, you know, like from a kid who’s actually in high school rather than someone who is not,” high school senior Billy Scannell said. “In the high school they offer over 20 [advanced placement] courses and a vast array of clubs, with an award-winning music program … the school has a lot to offer. If you really look at it, it becomes clear why Earl L. Vandermeulen was named one of the five Blue Ribbon Schools on Long Island. With AP courses and the classrooms, it’s growing because the school just gives you so many opportunities to learn new things and explore. So you say the number of kids isn’t growing, but the opportunities are and so many kids just want to be a part of that.”
Those against, including the Port Jefferson Village mayor and board of trustees, have cited uncertainty surrounding a lawsuit, which includes the village and district, against the Long Island Power Authority, that could result in substantial losses in property tax revenue for both entities, as enough evidence to support a “no” vote. No expected resolution timetable exists regarding the lawsuit, which has been pending for several years. Others have said they’re not sure they agree with the district’s assessment that each of the 21 items on the bond wish list are at a stage of requiring immediate remedy. Others have said a district-produced enrollment study projecting the number of students in the district to remain flat over the next several years is a sign that expansion of facilities doesn’t make sense at the current time either.
“How do I authorize the community to spend $30 million before I know if the school district is secure,” said Ted Lucki, a Port Jeff resident, former school board trustee and former mayor of Belle Terre Village. “How do I vote for that? It’s irresponsible. I think timing is everything. There’s a gorilla in the room. What are we, naïve? How do we justify that? It’s inappropriate for me to vote for a bond when we’re on the firing line for much bigger issues.”
District Superintendent Paul Casciano reiterated points he’s made throughout the process of presenting the bond to the public. He said it’s difficult to know when the LIPA issue will be resolved, and in the meantime the buildings still need fixing. He also said the list has been pared down from the original $100 million incarnation from when the process began about three years ago to include only the things the district views as essential.
If passed, the $30 million project would feature a three-story addition to a wing of the high school, additional classrooms at the high school and elementary school, a turf football field at the high school, lights for the Scraggy Hill Road athletic fields, among many more improvements. The district’s total budget for the 2017-18 school year is about $43 million. If passed, the bond would cost the average taxpayer between $400 and $1,000 annually during the 15-year life of the payment plan. Deputy Superintendent Sean Leister plans to make available a property tax calculator in the coming weeks on the district website that would allow residents to see how the bond would impact their annual bill.
Casciano pledged to schedule more walk-throughs of the buildings and areas slated for upgrades prior to the vote and even left open the possibility to conduct a virtual building tour, which those unable to physically attend a walk-through could view at their own leisure. The board of education is slated to solidify the proposal and vote on establishing Dec. 5 for the referendum during its next public meeting Oct. 10. A survey will remain accessible for members of the public to weigh in on the proposal on the district website until Oct. 9.