Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Thanks for the New Buses, Time to Fix the Dilapidated Schools

Thank you, voters, for choosing the safety of our kids over nickels and dimes. In May, you approved the purchase of several new buses to help transport Clarence's schoolkids to and from public and private schools across the region.

It wasn't just a safety issue, but also a value proposition. The state picked up the vast majority of the bill, the interest rate to finance the purchase is at a historical low, and newer buses are cheaper to maintain than older ones with hundreds of thousands of miles on them.

We turn now to the schools and their physical plants. A task force has been working for months at the school buildings and playing fields, and in mid-June made its recommendations to the Board of Education. Here are some facts, Clarence.

1. It has been over 40 years since the town undertook a comprehensive project to make repairs and upgrades necessary to maintain the physical school buildings. When it comes to HVAC systems, roofs, and windows, many have never been replaced and are woefully wasteful and inefficient. The school buildings are between 48 and 75 years old, and are held in trust for the benefit of the people of Clarence. It is our responsibility to ensure that our investment is properly maintained, and that we are not throwing money away. Here is what will be done:

2. When Clarence undertakes this comprehensive maintenance project, the State of New York will fund 70% of the cost; Clarence taxpayers will only be on the hook for 30% of a 15 year bond, amounting to $6 per month on a home valued at $200,000.

To reiterate: if we bond this, we pay 30% of the cost. If we do not bond this, we will still have to make the necessary repairs, and pay 100% of the cost. 

3. Enrollment trends are reasonably stable, but in decline. They are not, however declining at a rate that would facilitate the closing of an elementary school.  Between 2009 and 2014, enrollment for all schools is down only about 350. Experts project that, going forward, 2014-2019 enrollment will decrease by 104 in K-5, 139 in 6-8, 23 in 9-12, and 266 overall in K-12. That's a slower rate of decline than the previous 5 years, and it doesn't factor in 700 building lots in the town's development pipeline, potential Catholic school restructuring, and unknown potential growth of younger households. The elementary school census would have to be at or less than 1,650 to justify closing a school - the current figure is 1,954. The optimum capacity for an elementary school is about 550, and our schools are at between 422 - 534.

4. In 2011, a building condition survey was undertaken - these surveys are done every 5 years. To make necessary - not optional or discretionary, but mandatory - repairs to the schools, the task force recommends a $9.3 million town investment in order to leverage an additional $21.6 million in state aid, for a total rehabilitation of $30.9 million. Most of the school buildings have not had a needed upgrade since 1970.

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5. Pursuant to the 2013 building condition survey update, a total of $43.7 million should be spent to make all upgrades identified as category 1 and 2 needs.  Category 1 updates involve health & safety, electrical, HVAC, and roof repairs, building infrastructure, and technology updates. The task force whittled this down to $30.9 million out of respect for the taxpayers, by excluding category 2 items, and by recategorizing some items from 1 to 2. Task force chairman Vic Martucci emphasized that the task force recommendations reflect only needs - nothing is a "want".

6. The updates are needed now in order to bring the buildings up to code. Martucci indicated that state aid is available now, but might be gone if we wait.  It is, therefore, imperative to strike while the iron is hot and get a state aid commitment. He also indicated that historically low interest rates are so attractive that the board would be breaching its fiduciary duty to the schools and the taxpayers if it didn't do this now. He added that many systems have long outlived their useful life, and efficiency updates would pay dividends year over year.

7. A second bond will be proposed to make needed upgrades to the high school playing fields. The passage of the sports bond is contingent on the passage of the larger bond proposal, but not vice-versa. The task force is recommending a $1.5 million town investment to leverage $3.5 million in state aid in order to perform $5 million in total upgrades.

8. The condition of the fields is poor, and grass is expensive to maintain. Drainage is poor, and leads to myriad cancellations. When conditions are muddy, it takes a great deal of time for the fields to recover, and this past school year 117 games had to be rescheduled, and the fields affect 1,775 students. These fields can also be utilized by the community, to everyone's benefit.

9. One of the proposals includes upgrading the football field to field turf, which is safer and will have state-of-the-art drainage. It will be cheaper to maintain, be more durable, and lead to fewer injuries. We will also have a new scoreboard, a new track, and new fencing. A second multi-purpose, soccer field-sized area will also be upgraded to turf, accommodating soccer, field hockey, baseball, and softball.  The life of the turf itself is about 12 - 15 years, and is relatively cheap to replace. Adoption of field turf will save money on the operating budget as it relates to field & grounds.

The incoming school board will be analyzing the task force's recommendations, and it is anticipated that it will vote on the final bond proposal sometime in September. The vote would take place sometime in November, and be held at the High School, like all school board and budget votes. 

Financing the repair and maintenance of publicly owned buildings is not only necessary, but the economic conditions are ideal - 70% of it paid directly through state aid, and low interest rates. 

Don't think that you're saving the state any money if it's rejected - Albany will spend the money one way or another, and it's important that Clarence claim its fair share. 

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