At their regular meeting on Wednesday, November 19, the New Paltz Central School District voted 7-0 to put the same $52.9 million bond proposal for capital improvements back up before voters at the earliest possible date. The vote will be held on Tuesday, January 27, 2015. The only thing different this time around will be the polling hours: voters will be able to cast their ballot from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., an amendment to the process that also passed with 7-0 board approval due to common consent that the public would like the option to vote on their way to work in the morning.
Why the same bond
After the $52.9 million bond issue proposal failed at the polls on October 28, the New Paltz Board of Education actively solicited feedback from the community in order to help them evaluate the direction to move forward with another proposal. A capital project opinion hotline was set up and e-mail addresses to send comments to were made available to the public. And according to board president Brian Cournoyer, the board did receive “quite a bit” of feedback during these past two-plus weeks.
So what did the community have to say? “The general theme that I saw in the feedback was that it appeared they didn’t seem to have the comfort that due diligence was done [by the board] to get to where we were,” said trustee Dominick Profaci. “So I think moving forward, we need to get the information out to show the diligence that was done… We were transparent, but unfortunately not everybody has followed along [with the process].”
Board member Steve Greenfield agreed. “If people are still seeking information now that they would have considered germane to how they were going to vote last month, it seems it would be in the interests of our district to give those people the information that they need. When I look at the negative comments they sent us — and in many cases they sent us a list of why they voted ‘no,’ — much of it is [due to] misinformation. People said, ‘It’s because of the numbers I saw in that anonymous mailing.’ Well, all the numbers in the anonymous mailing were wrong.”
Greenfield said that other comments showed a misunderstanding of why certain items were included. One person, he said, questioned whether the schools should be offering occupational therapy. “That’s an interesting question, but it’s required by state law that we do, so we have to have the space for it.”
And he said he was troubled by allegations that the schools had fallen apart because of lack of maintenance, citing the “tremendous amount of maintenance that’s been done” and the numerous state inspections that are satisfied every year. “I’d like to encourage people to look at the evidence.”
Board vice president Ruth Quinn said that the comments they received about the project reflected “the same debates we had at the table two years ago.” People “got stuck on” questions of things like why they didn’t consolidate the schools, she said, and didn’t understand the process the board went through to get to the final project proposal and all the data they considered. “We need to find a way to let people know that yes, we did discuss this and the reasons we arrived at a different decision,” said Quinn, noting the difficulty of condensing “two years of board meetings and deliberations and vigorous debate and argument.”
Trustee Tim Rogers said he was frustrated by the comments from people who said they didn’t believe the board had fully taken into consideration the benefits of a two-school model versus a four-school model. “That’s what we wrestled with during this entire process,” he said. “But even if we feel that we did a fair job of comparing the advantages, for some people we apparently didn’t list what those advantages are.” All four buildings need work, Rogers added, but they’re still structurally sound. “At no point did our architects ever show any concern that we were putting money into a failing structure.”
Profaci said the board needs to address the perception that this was a “bandaid” project. “It’s not a bandaid project, and it’s not the plan for today; it is the 20-year project. And we need to convey that, and quickly.”
The financial aspect
Although exit polls conducted on October 28 revealed that 77 percent of those who voted ‘no’ did so because of the project’s costs, the board did not engage in any discussion of scaling back the project to a less expensive option.
“There are people who are going to vote ‘no’ no matter what because of the tax issues,” said Quinn. “They don’t have enough money and they’re going to vote ‘no’ on any project that isn’t just a ‘health and safety’ project. What I’m hoping to do is to show the rationale for this project… We have to present why we’re not just saying ‘health and safety’ only.”
And she understands the community’s concern, she said. “We’re making decisions on two of the things that are most important to people, which is their money and their children,” she added. “The fact that we have a community that thinks critically and is engaged is actually an amazing thing. And even though some of the feedback we’re getting is negative, we have to hear it. It means we’re not doing as good a job as we can be doing to inform the community, and it’s not just on the issue of this bond. We are doing a lot of other things besides the work on this bond; we’re fighting for tax dollars by creating resolutions on ‘gap’ elimination, and providing tax relief for veterans.”
Board president Cournoyer said that what he got from the community feedback was that the project was just too expensive, but at the same time, people were concerned that the project actually didn’t go far enough; that there would be even more expenses to come further down the road. “There are always things that will need to be done; you’re never finished,” he said. “But somewhere in there we had to strike a balance.”
Decision to put the bond back up as is
In the end, after much discussion revisiting the reasons they came to the decisions about the project that they did, the board was in consensus that they’d developed a sound proposal of “must have” items the first time around and they are going to stick with it, convinced that if they convey critical information better this time around and the public fully understands their rationale they will vote ‘yes’ this time.
“It’s the little things,” said trustee Aimee Hemminger. “It’s a full-time job to investigate all this. But after asking the public [to come forward with comments] and even reading things on social networks, it seems like people just want the information. They just want to know what they’re voting on. And they didn’t know.”