New Paltz school board releases a breakdown in costs for the $49.78m middle school renovation
by Mike Townshend
The proposed $49.78 million renovation for the New Paltz Middle School has become a topic of passion and division within town. Opponents of the renovation deride it as too costly and have accused the school district of downplaying the future interest burden. Proponents point to the advancements in green technology included in the building and the educational possibilities it could bring to kids in New Paltz.
At last week's school board meeting, board President David Dukler again asked people to remain civil and keep Feb. 10 -- the day after the middle school vote -- in mind.
"I understand," he said. "The financial drama of our time continues."
Elsewhere in the community, the battle to win people over to either the pro-renovation or anti-renovation sides has also heated up.
In early January, lawn signs saying that the middle school project would cost $100 million have popped up throughout New Paltz.
According to school board Vice President Don Kerr, those figures are just plain wrong.
"The lawn signs take conservative projections on project costs put out by the school district and manipulates them," Kerr said. "It inflates the current debt of the school district and considers over $30 million in state aid as debt."
With just over $20 million in expected building aid from the state, taxpayers would pay $29.75 million of the middle school renovation's price tag, according to information by the school district.
Kerr also made it a point to stress the fact that construction bids could end up being lower than expected. Project architects have built in a good deal of risk protection into their budget, meaning that it likely is somewhat inflated.
Because the district won't break ground until summer 2011, taxpayers wouldn't see their taxes go up until September 2012. From then, the district would bond the work and would repay that bond within 20 years.
Including the current and proposed debt burden, the average cost for a home assessed at $297,700 -- the median cost in New Paltz -- would be $13.15 per month. Board of Education members voted to keep the middle school worked into their annual four percent tax levy increase -- so it wouldn't represent any bigger of an annual change to taxes than taxpayers have seen in the past few years.
Assuming a three percent annual interest rate on the bond, the district would owe approximately an extra $30 million on the original $49.78 million.
However, what the district would actually pay back to its investors would hinge on what municipal bonds go for when they issue the bond. That interest rate will remain undetermined until that happens.
A breakdown in costs
For the past few weeks, the district has held informational meetings to tell people about the costs and benefits of the project prior to Feb. 9.
Included in the newest slideshow is a breakdown of what all that $49.78 million will go toward buying. Here's that list:
-- New classroom wing and redesigned entryway: $31.25 million.
-- Classroom and hallway renovations: $5.21 million.
-- Renovations to turn the 1930s wing into a new district office: $2.61 million.
-- Cafeteria and kitchen renovations: $1.92 million.
-- New small gym room: $1.37 million.
-- New locker room: $720,000.
-- Slight renovations to current gymnasium: $260,000.
-- Slight renovations to current auditorium: $150,000.
-- High-performance or green building additions: $2.99 million.
-- New parent drop-off loop, parking and entryway work: $400,000.
-- New district office loop, administrative parking work: $300,000.
-- Moving the playground and outdoor dining: $100,000.
-- Improvements to the sports fields: $200,000.
-- Moving the district's central cooking kitchen to high school: $1.71 million.
-- Moving central receiving to the high school: $430,000.
-- Demolition of the old district office building on Main Street: $160,000.
-- Included in the $49.78 is also $500,000 to help cover the costs of relocating students to both Lenape Elementary School and the old Tillson Elementary School.
How green is 'green'?
One large part of the middle school renovation plan has been the proposal to include much more environmentally friendly technologies. Right now, the middle school blasts heat so badly during the winter that teachers often have to open up windows to make sure that kids don't stifle.
A good portion of the green technology is aimed at making the heating and air conditioning top notch and reducing the haphazard nature of what is occurring now, Trustee KT Tobin Flusser said.
The schools plan to investigate $2.99 million in options for adding green technology, such as solar panels or geothermal heating. It also includes less trendy, but needed changes -- including upgrades to insulation, motion sensor lights, more efficient plumbing fixtures and increasing the number of classrooms with natural lighting pouring in from the windows.
That overall green technology number could change -- especially with high-price items, such as geothermal heating and cooling, Tobin Flusser said.
"We won't do it if there's not a good payback," she said. Testing for geothermal would involve digging approximately 80 test wells on the site to see if that renewable energy option would even be viable.
Drilling myriad holes in the ground isn't really something the New Paltz schools could even do before the voters weigh in on the project on Feb. 9, she added.
Of equal importance to the benefits of a renovated middle school has been developing an acceptable plan for relocating students during the construction period.
"Although our current middle school building is outdated and in need of renovation, it is essential that construction is not undertaken at the expense of our current students' education and development. This is a priority," said Superintendent Maria Rice. "We will ensure that the students who would be relocated during construction are provided with a quality education with all of the opportunities they would have received if they remained in the middle school building."
Relocation is necessary because it is not possible to undertake the desired building additions/renovations without demolishing more than half of the existing classroom spaces. By relocating, the construction phase can be limited to just one school year.
A team of two-dozen stakeholders (consisting of students, parents, teachers, support staff and administrators from across the four school buildings, as well as a representative from SUNY New Paltz) came together for two months to develop the relocation plan. After extensive research, review and deliberation, the team presented their plan to the Board of Education in mid-December.
"Our goal was to cause the least impact as possible at the other buildings, while keeping our middle school program intact," said middle school teacher Barbara Weiner, who was also a representative on the committee.
Specifics of the plan:
-- Grade 6 will remain in the familiar environment of Lenape Elementary School for an additional year, but will attend school on the middle school schedule. The sixth grade students would still travel to and from school with their middle school peers, where they would use a separate bus loop, entrance, classrooms and offices designated for the middle school program. The space is currently leased to Ulster BOCES, who is able to relocate many of their classes for the time period necessary for construction.
Since the middle school schedule begins earlier than the Lenape schedule, there is a block of time in the morning that the older students can access unique classrooms -- such as music, band and physical education -- without causing any scheduling conflicts for the other grades.
"We are happy that space could be arranged for our students to stay with us for an additional year," said Lenape Principal Michelle Martoni. "Since these students are already a part of our school community, the additional year at Lenape will be natural for them. At the same time, the students will also be able to experience the independence they are seeking at this age, since they will follow a middle school schedule and transition to a new middle school principal and expectations."
-- Grades 7 and 8 will relocate to Tillson Elementary School, located behind the Postage Inn in Tillson. The building belongs to the Kingston City School District, who offered it to the District to utilize during the project.
"Environment plays an important part in getting students settled in and ready to learn, so having an actual school -- with all the components of an educational setting -- available to us is a great asset," said Weiner.
The Tillson site, which was last used as an alternative high school by Ulster BOCES, is adequately sized for the grade 7-8 students and features 14-16 classrooms, plus other spaces like a gymnasium, stage, kitchen, offices, athletic fields and even a school garden area. Parking and a bus loop also exist.
-- The relocation plan supports the scheduling of appropriate courses for meeting State and Federal requirements, as well as New Paltz Central School's own educational standards. Appropriately equipped classrooms will be available.
"This plan also allows us to keep all our teaching teams intact. Other than the location, students will receive the same programs, services, field trips and opportunities that would have been available at our middle school building," said Weiner. "The middle school staff has a history of being able to provide the best possible education under less than desirable circumstances, we will be vigilant in ensuring that quality learning is taking place, just as it does now."
-- All budgeted co-curricular activities (clubs) and sports for grades 6-8 will continue to be offered. Shuttles will be available to transport students to identified locations where they will join their other middle school peers for activities. The Tillson grounds contain a soccer field and additional field space that can be used for skill practices and drills. The cross-country team will be able to use the grounds for their practices. The Tillson gymnasium can also serve some indoor sports.
New Paltz school board members unanimously approved a list of seven poll workers for the Feb. 9 special election on the proposed $49.78 million middle school renovation last week.
While the vote was not usually the kind of thing that would draw comment, much less controversy, the Board of Education entertained a lengthy and lively public comment session on Jan. 20. Many of the people speaking spoke to the possible elimination of New Paltz resident Nora Strano from that list.
Strano, who is an outspoken opponent of the middle school renovation, said she felt like the school board had launched "personal attacks on me."
She also rebuked six of the board members for their "extreme bullying of a particular board member." Strano was alluding to the board's treatment of Edgar Rodriguez -- the only member to vote against placing the renovation project on the ballot.
Rodriguez disliked the project because he thought that taxpayers in New Paltz could not deal with the burden of the $49.78 million project and the subsequent interest the district would shoulder.
Robert Gabrielli, also an opponent of renovation, said he felt like the school board would have crossed the line if they didn't allow Strano to work the polls.
"You can't arbitrarily limit dissent," Gabrielli said.
Ultimately, the Board of Education voted unanimously to approve all seven names on the list, citing a conversation with their attorney.
Besides Strano, that list includes John Johnson, Elena Maskell, Kathleen Mironchik, Maria C. Davila, Shari Osborn and Floyd Kniffen. The school district's attorney advised them that no one should be excluded from the election workers list -- no matter how they stand on the issue.
Upcoming forums, meetings and tours
Prior to the vote, the school district also plans to hold more public forums. As of press time, a forum was scheduled for Wednesday, (Jan. 27), 7 p.m. at Lenape Elementary School. On Feb. 3, a 7 p.m. public forum will take place at New Paltz Central High School. On Feb. 4, a 6:30 tour of the middle school will be held before a forum at 7 p.m. -- also at New Paltz Middle School.
Where and when to vote
Voters can queue up at the high school polling stations starting at noon on Feb. 9. Polls close at 9 p.m. that evening. The school is located at South Putt Corners Road. In the event schools are closed due to inclement weather, as prescribed by law, the bond vote will take place as scheduled unless a state of emergency is declared by Ulster County.
For more complete information on the project budget overall, head to npcsdms.edublogs.org.