The pandemic-delayed work to finish the amphitheater and Lenape Elementary School will soon be resumed, with changes. Instead of adding a couple more rows of stone for seating, teachers and kids are reporting that they don’t mind sitting on the grass if they could just get some shade.
Liz Burdick, who helped shepherd this idea into reality before as a teacher in the district, was at the March 17 board meeting to explain the proposed changes. Burdick was clear on one point: whether trustees supported installing shade sails or preferred to stick with the original stone benches, the money and the commitment to complete the project remains. Burdick and other volunteers want to see the vision of an outdoor classroom and performance space come completely into focus.
The feedback being received is that once it’s warmer than about 80 degrees, it’s just too hot for the amphitheater to be usable. Sitting on the grass is cooler when the sun is out, and the kids don’t mind. When events have brought in adults, they bring their own chairs and set them up on the sloping lawn, which is pitched enough to make it easy to see but not so steeply to make it scary to sit there. There is space for 500 people, by pre-pandemic reckoning. Shade sails would make the temperature on the stage and in the seating comfortable enough to make it a useful quite a bit more often.
A formal update was requested because trustees wanted to understand the financial impact to taxpayers if they were to agree to installing the shade sails instead of the stone benches. In either case, the understanding is that the installation and construction would be paid for with the money that was raised, and the maintenance of the space paid from the school budget. That was understood when the project was accepted several years ago, but this will change the maintenance cost.
Shade sails don’t last nearly as long as stone benches; these come with a ten-year warranty and a prediction that they could last twice that long. Once they wear out, school officials will have to decide to replace them, and the cost for that right now is about $15,000. Facilities workers would also need to be taken down for the winter months, which would involve about three hours’ labor, and put up again in the spring.
Board president Glenn LaPolt said that this was an “absolutely minimal cost” to maintain, and the word “minimal” was also used by facilities director Guy Gardner and trustee Bianca Tanis. Teresa Thompson, on the other hand, was staunchly opposed to the change and cast the only vote against it.
Thompson explained the reason for voting no later in the meeting, saying that agreeing to a plan change that will cost more in maintenance isn’t fair, because the wellness center in the high school hasn’t been fully funded yet. There remains about $108,000 that would need to be spent to complete the plans for the wellness center which, like the amphitheater, is usable right now even though not everything in the original plan has been installed yet. “Now we’re talking about spending money on a project that wasn’t ours to begin with,” said Thompson.
Diana Armstead thinks that a partially-functioning wellness center is enough that trustees can consider the needs of students in other buildings, too. Thompson repeated the observation about it being a taxpayer-funded project, not one spearheaded by community members in a grassroots effort to make improvements to a school. Bianca Tanis suggested that the discussion of the wellness center should be held at the budget hearing, unlike the amphitheater discussion, which had already been closed by a vote.
Thompson disagreed that they are unrelated topics, and then promised, “That’s all I’m going to say about that.”
The athletic director should bring a complete update on the status of the wellness center project to the budget discussions. After performing some back-of-the-envelope calculations, Michael O’Donnell estimated that the cost to complete the wellness center would be equal to about 60 years’ worth of maintenance on the amphitheater, including the replacement sails. Thompson told O’Donnell, “You could be a little biased,” as someone who supported the amphitheater project in the past, and the bickering continued for a few more minutes, with Brian Cournoyer recalling that it was clear from day one that maintenance of the amphitheater would be a district obligation as is the maintenance of the wellness center and every other piece of school property, and Thompson standing firm on the idea that it was reported in papers of the time that no taxpayer dollars would be used.