By Lynn Hallarman
The price tag for replacement bleachers at Earl L. Vandermeulen High School has prompted scrutiny from Port Jefferson Civic Association, which is seeking a full accounting of the project’s costs from the Port Jefferson School District.
District voters approved several capital projects in May 2022 as part of the 2022-23 budget, earmarking $561,000 for replacement bleachers.
During the Aug. 29 special meeting of the Board of Education, Superintendent of Schools Jessica Schmettan said the bids for the bleacher replacement project came in at nearly double what the budget had allotted — $1 million for downsized seating of 650 from the current capacity of 750 seats.
“This [cost] includes a new press box, erosion control, removal and disposal of the existing bleachers, press box removal and disposal of the concrete slab, cut-and-fill leaching pools, an asphalt walkway, reinforcement of the concrete bleacher plant and the bleacher rows, press box power and topsoil,” according to Schmettan.
The school district’s media liaison forwarded an email stating that the district “is in the process of re-bidding the proposed bleacher replacement project through a series of six different configurations, each at various price points,” noting that “no decision has been finalized.”
At the Sept. 13 meeting of the civic association, several members advocated for finding an alternative to the proposed bleacher replacement project with greater clarity over the school board’s vetting process for incoming bids.
“We are not against the safety of our students and fulfilling [Americans with Disabilities Act] requirements,” civic board members said in an email to the superintendent. But, “this significant increase in expenditure has raised great concern among our members,” adding that PJCA members “still have more questions than answers.”
Civic president Ana Hozyainova said attention to district expenditures is linked to other worries among village residents, such as rising taxes amid an aging population.
The downtrend in student enrollment in Port Jefferson — a 25% loss between 2011 and 2021, according to a 2022 district report — is not isolated to Port Jeff but part of a nationwide phenomenon, with persons over 65 years of age predicted to outnumber children by 2030, according to the Census Bureau.
Retrofitting the existing 60-year-old bleachers was also discussed as a possible alternative during the August BOE meeting, though it is unlikely to save costs, according to Schmettan.
“While structurally sound, [the bleachers] present a liability risk because of gaps between the benches and must be brought to current code, including ADA compliance, if any modifications are made,” the superintendent said.
The BOE proposed that funds approved by the voters in May 2022 for pool deck repairs be put off until the next budget cycle and instead use current funds to cover the additional costs of replacement bleachers.
“The pool deck repairs won’t be able to be done this budget cycle anyway because the [Suffolk] County Board of Health hasn’t approved it,” Schmettan said.
Some civic members objected to this approach to cover the bleacher replacement’s additional costs.
“We live on an island, surrounded by water in a harbor, and a lot of kids go swimming and fishing,” PJCA member Gail Sternberg said at the August meeting. “I don’t think [the pool repairs] should be less of a priority than the bleachers.”
PJCA has formally requested through the state Freedom of Information Law to examine the complete, itemized bids received by the district for the bleacher replacement project to better inform its members about the potential costs.