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The Comsewogue board of education had a community bonding experience Feb. 12.

The school district’s six buildings are in need of upgrades and improvements, according to its facilities committee, a group of 21 professionals from across Comsewogue including members of the board, administrators, architects, engineers, former teachers, civic association members and more. The group was assembled in early January, and has been holding workshops and meetings to compile a list of projects to recommend to the board.

The committee presented a list of more than 100 upgrades considered of the highest priority and identified as the A-list. The projects would take place in each of the district’s schools if a bond referendum were passed. Some of the projects include required upgrades to achieve compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act; parking lots and sidewalks; security at all of the district buildings; exterior and interior building infrastructure; athletic fields and facilities; and kitchen upgrades among many others.

The total price tag for the A-list would be almost $32 million, paid for during a 15-year period with approximately $3 million in interest, according to the committee. If passed, the average taxpayer would see an increase of about $120 annually to their school tax bill, based on conservative state aid estimates which won’t be known until the spring.

The committee also presented two other potential propositions for the board to consider: one a $9 million B-list of items deemed to be of lower priority and the third a complete overhaul of just the district’s air-conditioning units for approximately $13 million. Members of the committee said after touring the district facilities and buildings, its initial list of projects was in the ballpark of $75 million, which it then pared down to what currently appears on the A-list.

Susan Casali, the district’s assistant superintendent for business, served as the leader of the facilities committee.

“They’ve been phenomenal,” Casali said, of her colleagues on the committee. “It has been a great process, a lot of input, a lot of knowledge. We went through a lot of things and they really worked hard.”

Casali said the committee also took public input along the way from teachers, organizations and others in the community who had requests for upgrades.

“The board needs to know, and the public should know, how very carefully we looked at what items were to make the A-list,” said Joan Nickeson, a member of the Facilities Committee engaged in several aspects of the Comsewogue community. Nickeson also praised the work on the committee of architect Kenneth Schupner and engineer Frederick Seeba.

“The engineers and the architects, I don’t know how well you know these gentlemen, but I was so impressed with their knowledge and their ability to handle a myriad of questions,” she said. “We looked so carefully at every item.”

Stephanie Jaklitsch, a former teacher in the district who also has children attending Comsewogue schools, offered her input as a member of the committee.

“We’ve really touched everywhere that your child could be from safety in the parking lots and curbs, to every elementary classroom getting a face-lift,” she said. “Our students are going to see changes all the way through their education.”

Board of education president John Swenning, and Superintendent Joe Rella each thanked the committee for its thorough work, dedication to improving the Comsewogue environment and generosity in lending each of their personal levels of expertise to the group.

Some of the higher-priced projects included in the committee’s recommendation are: a new roof including solar panels at Terryville Road Elementary School; interior work at JFK Middle School, including some classroom and hallway renovations; and athletic upgrades at the high school to the
concession stand building.

The board will vote March 5 on the recommendations, and if it elects to move forward, to establish the specifics of the bond referendum and how it would appear on a ballot. The referendum would be included as a separate proposition on the same ballot as the annual budget and school board vote to be held May 15.

The full list of project recommendations is expected to be posted and available on the district website, www.comsewogue.k12.ny.us.

This post was updated Feb. 14 for grammatical fixes.

An electronic sign in front of Port Jefferson High School alerting residents about the referendum. Photo by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

After months of passionate and at times heated debate, the Port Jefferson School District community has spoken.

Residents voted overwhelmingly against a $30 million capital bond proposal that carried an additional $10 million in interest over its 15-year life and included over 20 districtwide repair and upgrade projects. The issue garnered feverish local attention at numerous school board meetings and on social media forums since it was presented to the public by the district and board of education in September, driving more than 1,700 voters to the polls on referendum day Dec. 5. After all was said and done, 1,355 residents voted against the bond, with just 374 voting in favor of it. By comparison, just 412 people voted on the 2018 budget and school board vacancies back in May.

A lawn sign on Barnum Avenue encouraging residents to vote ‘No’ on a $30M PJSD bond proposal. Photo by Alex Petroski

The proposal featured 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 and lights for the Scraggy Hill Road athletic fields, among many more improvements. Some of the fixes — like additional girls locker room space and handicapped parking spaces at the high school track — were included to get the district in compliance with Title IX and the Americans with Disabilities Act and will likely need to be addressed either using the district’s capital reserves or a reworked bond proposal.

“While I am disappointed in the result, I am encouraged that so many residents took the time to vote,” district Superintendent Paul Casciano said in an email. “The district and our board of education will discuss the matter further at subsequent meetings. The safety, security and compliance concerns that we were attempting to address through the projects in the capital bond still exist and need attention.”

Many of those opposed to the bond pointed to the uncertainty surrounding an ongoing district and Port Jefferson Village lawsuit against Long Island Power Authority, as both entities stand to potentially lose substantial tax revenue in the coming years should a settlement or decision in the LIPA case be reached. LIPA has contended it pays too much in property taxes to operate the Port Jefferson Power Station, now that sweeping energy-efficiency upgrades have drastically reduced the regular need for the plant. The district and village’s annual operating budgets are funded in large part due to that revenue. Others were also opposed to the “all or nothing” proposal, which included upgrades that were seen as imminently necessary alongside projects that were viewed as extravagant, like the stadium lights at the Scraggy Hill fields and a new synthetic playing surface for the varsity football field.

“I think the result demonstrates that the community is seeking more transparency and fiscal responsibility from the board and the administration,” said Rene Tidwell, a district resident who was vocal in her opposition to the proposal. “We as a community are eager to roll up our sleeves and help identify urgent projects to fix compliance issues and to help prioritize long-term projects.”

Tidwell said she was not previously as engaged in the goings on of the board of education prior to the emergence of the debate over the bond.

“There had been talk in the community about it and when I started looking closely at the information the board provided I ended up having more questions,” she said. “Many in the community felt there wasn’t a consistent resource or outreach to the entire community with respect to contributing input for what went into the bond proposal.”

Depending on the assessed value of a district resident’s home, the bond would have resulted in an increase of between $289 and $1,185 annually in property taxes, according to the district.

Port Jefferson Village Mayor Margot Garant publicly requested that the district hold off on bringing the proposal forward in September until a resolution was reached on the LIPA issue.

“Tonight’s heavy turnout and result reflects the engagement and passion of our community,” Garant said Dec. 5 via email. “They spoke to the board of education with resounding voices of concern over this bond proposal and while doing so, expressed their deep concern for the children in our school district, clearly stating their support for the ‘needs,’ and not the ‘wants’ in the proposal.”

Elwood Middle School will get a new roof with the passage of Proposition 1 by voters. File photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

Elwood taxpayers are willing to pay for critical infrastructure repairs to their schools, but turned down athletic program and field upgrades.

Elwood School District residents approved Proposition 1 of a bond referendum by 718-371 votes to make health and safety upgrades to the district’s four buildings Nov. 28. A second proposition to spend $3.72 million in enhancements to the athletic fields and other amenities narrowly failed, by a 508-577 vote.

Dilapidated auditorium seating in Elwood Middle School, will be repaired as a result of the passage of a capital bond proposition. File photo by Kevin Redding

“My sincere appreciation to all residents who came out to vote,” Superintendent Kenneth Bossert said. “I think the voting results show the priority that Elwood residents place on education.”

The approved bond proposition contains $34.5 million in capital projects including the replacement of the roofs in each of the four buildings — Harley Avenue School, Boyd Intermediate School, Elwood Middle School, and John H. Glenn High School — which was included due to leaks and flooding issues; and fixing sidewalks and pavement cracks.

Large renovations are also slated for each of the individual buildings under Proposition 1. Three of the schools — Harley Avenue, Elwood Middle School and John Glenn — will undergo cafeteria renovations to install new ceilings, replace outdated lighting fixtures, replace damaged furniture and install new air conditioning systems. The intermediate school will have a new parking lot installed for approximately 60 vehicles as well as a newly designed parent drop-off loop for $260,000 to improve traffic flow. In both the middle school and high school, there will be renovations of art and family and consumer science classrooms.

The district will move forward with having construction plans drawn up by their architects and submit them to the New York State Education Department for approval, according to Bossert, which he said takes 12 to 18 months on average.

“We are trying to make the roofs a priority, as the roofs leak and cause flooding during inclement weather,” Bossert said. “It doesn’t make sense to do any of the interior work before the roofs are fixed.”

The superintendent said he hopes to have the plans submitted to the state as soon as possible, as the district will still need to go through the bidding process for contractors prior to starting construction. He estimated it may be five years before all of the bond work is completed.

A damaged ceiling tile resulting from a roof leak in Elwood Middle School, that will be repaired as part of a capital bond project passed by the community. File photo by Kevin Redding

“Having patience is important in this project,” Bossert said.

The average estimated cost to taxpayers for Proposition 1 is $221 per year, or $18.32 per month, for a home with median assessed value. A calculator that allows homeowners to plug in their tax information for an exact quote is available on the district’s website.

The failed Proposition 2 asked taxpayers for $3.72 million to make enhancements to the district’s athletic programs. It was separated from Proposition 1 by the board of education as it was expected to be a divisive issue.

“The reason it is separate is there was division among opinions in the community,” Bossert said at September presentation. “Some members of the community were strongly in support of this proposed $3.72 million as something they can afford to invest in, other factions said, ‘We don’t feel that way.’”

Proposition 2 would have permitted the district to build a new concession stand for the athletic fields with an outdoor bathroom, a synthetic turf field, sidewalks to make the fields ADA compliant and a new scoreboard for the varsity baseball field.

Port Jefferson High School. File photo by Elana Glowatz

The fate of Port Jefferson School District’s $30 million bond proposal won’t be known until next week, but if informal assessments are accurate, the Dec. 5 vote is going to be close.

According to a nonscientific poll posted by TBR News Media on a Facebook page comprised of 1,355 users who identify as Port Jefferson Village residents, those sure they will vote to pass the $30 million, 15-year borrowing plan, which also carries a $10 million interest price tag, are equal to those not currently ready to cast a “yes” vote. As of 4 p.m. Nov. 28, of the 46 people who answered the poll, 23 said they planned to vote in favor. Fifteen responders said they planned to vote “no,” while eight said they weren’t yet sure how they would vote.

District administration presented the high-price capital bond proposal to the board of education and the public during a board meeting Sept. 12. If passed, the capital plan 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, stadium lights for the elementary school fields, and many other improvements. The district’s total budget for the 2017-18 school year is about $43 million.

Bond proposal highlights

•$7.6M to construct a three-story addition at PJHS

•$2.3M to construct new music room and instrumental practice room at PJHS

•$2.2M to build addition to PJHS cafeteria and renovate kitchen space

•$1.2M to replace windows at PJHS

•$2.5M to construct two additional classrooms at elementary school

•$1.7M for locker room renovations at PJHS

•$1.6M for installation of stadium lighting at Scraggy Hill fields

•$1.4M for a new synthetic turf football field at PJHS

•$3.7M to convert tech ed building to new central administration headquarters

•$1.6M to install drainage walls at north side of middle school building

•$737K to install new ventilators in two wings of elementary school building

The district also conducted its own informal survey on its website that was up from mid-September to early October to gauge general feelings in the community about the bond, according to Superintendent Paul Casciano. The district’s survey was also considered unscientific, as it did not prohibit users from taking the survey multiple times, or require any verification that the person taking the survey lives in Port Jeff. The assessment was taken 324 times, and of those, 254 said they would describe the current state of the district’s facilities as “good” or “fair.” Of those who took the survey, 256 said they already pay at least $8,000 annually in property taxes.

In an effort to demonstrate roughly how much a homeowner’s tax bill would increase should the referendum pass, the district posted a “property tax calculator” on its website earlier this month, though the district notified residents by email Nov. 27 the function had a flaw that caused the property tax estimates to be lower than they will be in reality.

The service was set up in conjunction with Munistat Services Inc., a contracted company that provides advisement and estimates on school district borrowing and debt management to other districts and organizations.

“At our request, Munistat provided an estimate of state aid for our proposed capital bond project in September, and the district used this figure in bond presentations and the development of the estimated tax calculator for residents,” the district email said.

The email went on to explain that Munistat overestimated the district’s state aid by $400,000 per year, and the calculator had to be adjusted. Original tax increase estimates, which ranged from $198 to $997 per year, were changed to $239 to $1,185 per year.

“Needless to say, the district is disappointed that this inaccuracy occurred, but is thankful that this information became available to share with residents before our scheduled bond vote,” the district email said.

Although the district has held several informational meetings and building tours to show voters the specific projects slated for improvement as part of the bond, some residents have criticized the district for its methods of notifying the public about the vote, as well as the date selected.

“I don’t feel that is a fair criticism,” Casciano said in an email. The district began using the electronic sign in front of the high school to inform residents about the impending vote this week, according to the superintendent, and an automated phone message was made to homes in the district to make them aware of the final bond meeting Nov. 27.

“We have also informed the entire public through a variety of additional means: an information flyer, voter guide, postcards, community facility walkthroughs, public and board of education presentations that were streamed live, the district website, which includes all of the bond information that we have shared with the community, Facebook, and of course, frequent articles  which have been published since the beginning of September in The Port Times Record.”

Sean Leister, deputy superintendent; Fred Koelbel, facilities and operations administrator; and architect John Grillo discuss aspects of the bond with attendees of the walk-through. File photo by Alex Petroski

Those opposed to the early December vote cited the potential absence of a large number of “snowbirds” or Port Jeff homeowners who tend to spend winters in warmer climates, on the date of the vote. The thinking being those residents are likely the same people who no longer have children attending the district, and therefore would be less likely to support the massive spending plan. For these residents, absentee ballots were made available.

Since the district presented the proposal to the public, lengthy and regular back and forth discussions have ensued on the private, 1,355-member Facebook page, with a seemingly down-the-middle split developing amongst posters. Public meetings regarding the bond have not provided much clarity on how residents might vote Dec. 5 either.

Some of the major arguments from those intending to vote “no” have included an aversion to the installation of stadium lights on athletic fields on Scraggy Hill Road; the inclusion of what many see as district “wants” mixed in with district “needs” among the more-than 20 line items in the bond; and the looming lawsuit which includes both the district and Port Jefferson Village as plaintiffs against the Long Island Power Authority. Both entities stand to potentially lose substantial tax revenue in the coming years should a settlement or decision in the LIPA case be reached, as LIPA has contended it pays too much in property taxes to operate the Port Jefferson power station, now that sweeping energy-efficiency upgrades have drastically reduced the regular need for the plant.

Those in favor of passing the bond have cited student safety concerns and the requirement to be completely compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act as the primary reason to vote “yes.”

“Keeping children safe and secure is our primary responsibility,” Casciano said. “This is not a responsibility that can be compromised and we believe the proposed projects will enable our district to continue to meet this mission while still remaining mindful of our commitment to the taxpayers.”

Polls will be open Dec. 5 from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. at Earl L. Vandermeulen High School.

Port Jefferson high school could look very different in the coming years if a $30M bond proposal is approved by the community. File photo by Elana Glowatz

The Port Jefferson School District has been asking the community to weigh in on a $30 million bond proposal to complete a litany of districtwide projects, and Monday night village leadership spoke out.

The Port Jefferson Village Board, which includes several members who previously served on the Port Jeff board of education, collectively took the position during a meeting Sept. 18 that now is not the time for the district to be asking taxpayers for permission to borrow millions for upgrades and repairs. Village Mayor Margot Garant and other board trustees cited the unclear financial future of the village and district due to pending litigation against the Long Island Power Authority.

Proposal Highlights

•$7.6M to construct a three-story addition at PJHS

•$2.3M to construct new music room and instrumental practice room at PJHS

•$2.2M to build addition to PJHS cafeteria and renovate kitchen space

•$1.2M to replace windows at PJHS

•$2.5M to construct two additional classrooms at elementary school

•$1.7M for locker room renovations at PJHS

•$1.6M for installation of stadium lighting at Scraggy Hill fields

•$1.4M for a new synthetic turf football field at PJHS

•$3.7M to convert tech ed building to new administration headquarters

•$1.6M to install drainage walls at north side of middle school building

“I’m going to strongly encourage the board of education, respectfully, to postpone this until a resolution is reached with LIPA,” Garant said in a phone interview after the meeting. “I want to commend them for looking at investing in the school system to improve the quality of education. We really want to resolve this issue so this community can stop putting off the plans to invest in our facilities and education.”

The village has no official jurisdiction over the district, though a vast majority of the village’s taxpayers also pay school taxes to the Port Jefferson School District. Both entities stand to potentially lose substantial tax revenue in the coming years should a settlement or decision in the LIPA case be reached, as LIPA has contended it pays too much in property taxes to operate the Port Jefferson Power Station, now that sweeping energy-efficiency upgrades have drastically reduced the regular need for the plant.

“We have deep respect for our mayor’s viewpoints as well as the various opinions of our residents,” district Superintendent Paul Casciano and board President Kathleen Brennan said in a joint statement via email in response to the village’s position. “Our board of education and district administration have been conducting public meetings and seeking feedback through multiple venues. Our goal is to develop a final proposal for our residents’ consideration that meets our responsibility to educate our community’s children in a safe, secure and welcoming learning environment.”

Garant suggested the village board is in a uniquely qualified position to comment on the district’s proposal given each of the individual members backgrounds prior to serving the village. Trustees Bruce Miller and Larry LaPointe were previously on the board of education, Trustee Stan Loucks is a former school district athletic director and Trustee Bruce D’Abramo is a former school district facilities manager.

Village Mayor Margot Garant agreed Sept. 18 they’d like to see the school district wait on a $30M bond project. File photo by Elana Glowatz

“I think if they’re going to ask for these things they ought to ask the public to vote on them in discrete segments so that the public has the chance to say, ‘Yes, we want this but we don’t want that,’” LaPointe said during the meeting. “I hesitate to criticize another board, I know they’re trying to do what’s best for everybody. It’s just an awfully big nut.”

LaPointe’s position was similar to several community members, who during a Sept. 12 board of education meeting suggested voting on the bond proposal as an all-or-nothing referendum, rather than in smaller pieces, would make it less palatable for many taxpayers.

“I haven’t made a decision, but one of the things that will probably sway me is if this is an all-or-nothing,” resident Drew Biondo said during the board of education meeting. “If it’s all or nothing, I don’t know which way I’ll go.”

District administration presented the $30 million capital bond proposal to the board of education and the public during the Sept. 12 meeting, featuring 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 elementary school field and many more improvements. The district’s total budget for the 2017-18 school year is about $43 million. If approved by the community with a vote tentatively scheduled for Dec. 5, construction would begin in 2019 and payments would be made annually beginning at about $1.5 million and concluding with a final $2.5 million installment in the 2033-34 fiscal year. The district would accrue nearly $10 million in interest over the life of the 15-year payment plan.

“Regardless of what happens with LIPA, we need to take care of the schools,” Casciano said during the last board of education meeting.

The village has reached out to set up a meeting to discuss the proposal with the district in the coming weeks. A survey soliciting public input on the proposal will remain accessible on the district website until Oct. 9.

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Port Jefferson high school could look very different in the coming years if a $30M bond proposal is approved by the community. File photo by Elana Glowatz

The Port Jefferson School District has its sights set on a massive face-lift that would impact all of its buildings, but it will come at a substantial cost.

District administration presented a $30 million capital bond proposal to the board of education and the public during a board meeting Sept. 12 which 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 and lights for the elementary school field, and many more improvements. The district’s total budget for the 2017-18 school year is about $43 million total.

Proposal highlights

•$7.6M to construct a three-story addition at PJHS

•$2.3M to construct new music room and instrumental practice room at PJHS

•$2.2M to build addition to PJHS cafeteria and renovate kitchen space

•$1.2M to replace windows at PJHS

•$2.5M to construct two additional classrooms at elementary school

•$1.7M for locker room renovations at PJHS

•$1.6M for installation of stadium lighting at Scraggy Hill fields

•$1.4M for a new synthetic turf football field at PJHS

•$3.7M to convert tech ed building to new central administration headquarters

•$1.6M to install drainage walls at north side of middle school building

The district will need community approval on a referendum currently slated for a vote Dec. 5 to be able to proceed with obtaining the bond and ultimately beginning construction. If approved the construction would tentatively begin in 2019 and payments would be made annually beginning at about $1.5 million and concluding with a final $2.5 million installment in the 2033-34 fiscal year. The project would result in a homeowner who pays $4,000 annually in school taxes being asked to contribute an additional $200 per year. The district plans to post a “school tax calculator” tool on its website in the coming weeks to allow residents to check how much their tax bill would increase with the additional $30 million burden, on an individual basis. The ask comes at a time of financial uncertainty for the district, which along with several other municipalities on Long Island could potentially lose a substantial amount of property tax revenue pending the outcome of a lawsuit against the Long Island Power Authority.

“Regardless of what happens with LIPA, we to need to take care of the schools,” District Superintendent Paul Casciano said during the meeting. “The best investment you can make, and I know I’m a public school educator so you expect me to say stuff like this, but the best investment you can make is in your schools, and it affects your property values. To neglect the schools is not really a wise move in terms of investment.”

Port Jefferson resident Drew Biondo was one of several community members in attendance who expressed concerns about an “all or nothing” referendum, as he said he viewed some of the components of the proposal as vital and others as less urgent. Casciano and Deputy Superintendent Sean Leister both said during the meeting the district hadn’t yet decided how the referendum would appear on the ballot, be it broken up into more than one component to be voted on or a straight, “yes” or “no” vote on the proposal in its entirety.

“I’d have to think hard about a turf field and lights,” Biondo said. “I understand the need, but when we’re facing possible closure of a power plant … I haven’t made a decision, but one of the things that will probably sway me is if this is an all or nothing. If it’s all or nothing, I don’t know which way I’ll go.”

The district is seeking more community input on the proposal through a survey on its website which was originally going to close Sept. 15, though Casciano said it may be left open for longer. Public tours will be held Sept. 20 at 6 p.m. at the elementary school and Sept. 25 at 6 p.m. at the high school for those interested in seeing the areas designated for upgrades.

UPDATE: The district has extended the window for community members to complete the bond proposal survey on its website through Oct. 9.

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