New Palz schools set special vote for Lenape land grab

Lenape Elementary School. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

Lenape Elementary School’s lot could get 22.4 acres larger if the New Paltz Central School District’s plan to buy land is approved by voters during a special election on April 10. The parcel, 301 Route 32 South, also includes a house, which the district hopes to eventually resell to defray the initial $798,000 purchase cost. At last week’s meeting, Patrick Rausch, the president of the school board, said that having that land will give the district some options in the future. “It gives us some flexibility. It is an extremely good opportunity,” he said.

Potentially, the school district could use that land to close one school building and expand to have two schools at one location. However, district officials haven’t made any plans for the land public.

“Nothing is decided yet,” Rausch said. “That’ll be the long-range planning you’ll see us approach.”

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Late last year, parents and community members who attended focus groups on a possible building closure and an overhaul to the district’s four schools urged the Board of Education to slow down and phase any upgrade project to spread costs over time. President Rausch said they’d received that message loud and clear.

“I think we’re actually coming to the view that we were moving too fast on that,” he said.

So then, how does a seemingly speedy move to grab land near Lenape stack with that?

“This is something we cannot slow down. If we don’t purchase it, we’re going to lose it,” Rausch said. The board president added that when people know a school district wants a property, usually they jack up the rates. That’s not happening here, since the seller — unable to unload the parcel — has cut the price.

Superintendent Maria Rice agreed, saying “the thing is, is that the opportunity is right now.”

Along with that 22.4 acres of land, the property includes a six-bedroom house with a two-car detached garage, a swimming pool, a cabana and a barn with a heated workshop space. As of the most recent year’s bill, school taxes on the property were $10,870.

All those factors have combined to mean that the house and land are cheap. Plus, the district can resell the house to cut costs, Rice said.

“It provides secondary access to the Lenape property,” the superintendent said. “And it provides for many future options for consideration.”

Having that land would give the district an opportunity to plan in the long term. It would also alleviate parking issues currently faced at Lenape. “It’s an absolutely incredible property,” the superintendent said.

Rice said her team came forward knowing the public might be up in arms about why they want land when program cuts are on the table in this budget cycle. A big part of the answer to that question comes in how the district plans to fund the $798,000 purchase.

“The key here is that the purchase of the land would be from our capital reserve fund,” she said.

The capital reserve was established by voters in 2005. None of the money held in that fund can help fund teacher salaries or programs for students — it can only be used to fix up buildings or make new structures.

Proposition 1 on the April 10 ballot asks voters to tweak the rules binding the capital improvement money to allow the district to purchase property with that reserve. Proposition 2 asks voters if they’ll support the land grab in general.

In a case where taxpayers vote no for Prop 1, but yes for Prop 2, the school district would bond for the $798,000 needed to buy that land.

Making the buy with the capital reserve money would mean the purchase is $798,000 alone. If it goes to bond, it would cost the initial $798,000 plus debt interest.

School board member Bob Rich noted that the Lenape land grab represented “a fairly unique opportunity to get money back out of the capital reserve fund,” since that fund is subject to a number of restrictions.

According to former school board member Steve Greenfield, the idea itself of purchasing land near Lenape is not new. In fact, behind the scenes, it has been a long-running project.

Greenfield praised the move. “This shows a lot of foresight in terms of giving the district a lot of flexibility,” he said.

The special vote will take place on April 10, from noon until 9 p.m., in the New Paltz Central High School gymnasium.

Most people who vote in school budget elections tend to show up in person. However, school officials sent out a press release to inform voters that they could also vote by absentee ballot.

“Applications are available via written request, e-mail request or personally coming into the district office,” the press release reads.

Voters should be aware that the district clerk is not allowed to dole out absentee ballots to persons other than the “voter whose name is on the application.” If you’re heading to the district office to get a ballot for an elderly or disabled relative, be aware that the ballot won’t get passed directly into your hands. Instead it’ll show up in your relative’s mailbox.

Absentee ballots have to be received by the district clerk before 5 p.m. on April 10. For questions about the absentee voting process, call the district office at 256-4031. ++