The Highland Central School District Board of Education held the first of two public forums on Wednesday, Nov. 13 to discuss the proposed $25 million capital project designed to improve security and repair or replace the outdated infrastructure in the elementary, middle and high schools. A public hearing will be held at Highland High School on Tuesday, Dec. 3 at 6 p.m. and the capital project proposition will be put before the voters in a special election on Tuesday, Dec. 10 from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the high school.
Superintendent Deborah Haab said the schools in Highland are simply showing their age, with the problems that need to be addressed a long time in the making, stemming from a natural process of attrition over years of use. “A lot of the systems that we’re looking at have really just reached the end of their useful life, or will reach the end of their useful life during the scope of this project,” she said. Some of the systems, Haab added, are so old that parts for them are obsolete.
And events like the school shootings last year in Newtown have underlined the need for secured access portals to the schools, the superintendent said. “Our goal with the capital project is to preserve our facilities, protect our students and staff along with the community’s investment in our facilities and to plan for the future, so that in a few years we’re not coming back to the community to complete more work.”
School Board president Alan Barone stressed that the capital project “is not something that was thought up overnight,” but a plan of action carefully considered and crafted over the course of many years, with priorities established and tweaked as necessary to update them. “We’ve put in a lot of time developing this project,” Barone said, “and this is what all that work has come to.”
The board was joined at the meeting by representatives from Ashley McGraw, a Syracuse-based architectural firm that specializes in school construction. They will carry out the work in Highland if the proposition is passed by voters. The firm’s senior architect and project manager Patrick Flynn was joined by partner Nick Signorelli and landscape architect Ed Keplinger in presenting visuals and floor plans of the extensive improvements to be made.
Most of the work included in the project is eligible for state aid at an anticipated rate of 66.2 percent. This will reduce the local cost to $12 million, exclusive of interest (which is also eligible for state aid). The board says they are also working closely with financial advisors to strategically phase in payment of the project as existing debt is retired, which will further reduce the local impact.
Superintendent Haab said that by presenting the plan to the community in the form of a building project, it allows access to that 66 percent reimbursement from the state. “If we were to have a piece of major equipment fail tomorrow, and we had to pay for that repair or replacement out of our operating budget, that’s a 100 percent cost born by the district,” she said. “By going through a capital project, we are able to maximize our ability to get the state reimbursement. We feel that is the most financially responsible way to approach the project.”
If the proposition passes, current estimates indicate an increase of approximately 40 cents a year per $1,000 of assessed value for the average homeowner with Basic STAR exemption whose primary residence in located in the Highland Central School District. The increase for taxpayers who receive the Enhanced STAR exemption is approximately 17 cents and 60 cents for those with no exemption. The District would repay the bond over 15 years.
Of the $25 million in total costs to be incurred, Haab said, $23,300,000 is slated to be spent in 2015. Of that, $18.6 million will be construction costs with $4.7 in soft costs, which includes associated expenses like fees for engineers. The remaining $1,700,000 of the total amount will be spent in 2018 for roof work, with $1.4 million of that in construction and $.3 million in soft costs.
There was very little public comment at the end of the meeting, in no small part because the information session was so sparsely attended. Several members of the board expressed disappointment with the low turnout. Barone closed by addressing possible questions the community might have about the $27 million in facility upgrades spent in the district just 12–14 years ago, from 1999–2001.
Barone pointed out that the costs back then were about increasing the schools’ capacity. “At all three buildings we enlarged the square footage. We did not touch much of the infrastructure then,” he said. “And as [we’ve] explained to you tonight, this project will focus on the deficiencies of the infrastructure.”
The $25 million capital improvement project proposal will not add any additional square footage or improvements of that nature, said Barone. “It’s dealing with the outdated items, things that have had their life expectancy expired.” And until those things are addressed, Barone said, “We’re putting band-aids on top of band-aids just to get by.”
A public hearing will be held at the high school on Tuesday, Dec. 3 at 6 p.m. and the vote takes place in the same location on Tuesday, Dec. 10 from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. The district’s website will be updated with information as it is available at www.highland-k12.org/P3project. Superintendent Haab can be reached with questions at 691-1014.