For the first time in generations, there are going to be significant renovations to the facilities under control of the Ulster County Board of Cooperative Educational Services, better known as BOCES. The open question is how the bills for the project are to be paid. BOCES administrators came to the November 3 School Board meeting in New Paltz to explain alternatives: either trustees of the eight school boards in the county decide how to finance their proportional share, or county voters can decide on a bond package by voting on a referendum.
This is a plan to do significant renovations at the main BOCES complex in Port Ewen, as well as the New Paltz facility on Old Kingston Road. Both have been in service without major updates since 1989, when those properties were purchased and developed. At the time, county voters by a 2-1 margin approved $15.2 million to purchase and ready those buildings for use, which is reportedly the equivalent of $33.6 million now, given how much less the dollar is worth. Even if the classrooms, auto shop, commercial kitchen and other spaces were in pristine condition, they are still designed for the teaching methods and technologies that were cutting edge when Hirohito was still emperor in Japan. The implication is that updates are long overdue. The work is largely about replacing or improving building systems such as heating and cooling, fire alarms, lighting, repairs to masonry, upgrades to bathrooms and a new roof for the New Paltz facility.
As this capital project will involve renovating spaces for which there are no alternatives, such as the aforementioned kitchen and auto shop, the construction will have to be concentrated during the summer break. That means that the $39 million project is expected to take four years to complete, with construction expected to run from 2024 through 2028. New Paltz students use 10.8% of the BOCES services provided, and a proportional share of this project’s cost would be $4.2 million. Other local districts include Kingston ($11.8 million), Saugerties ($5 million) and Onteora ($2.4 million).
New construction would require that this be decided in a countywide ballot referendum, but that’s not true for renovations. If a majority of members of all eight school boards in the county agree just to pony up their fair share, then that cost can be incorporated into the budget process in future years. If a majority of even one of those boards is against funding this project, all county voters will be given a chance to overturn that decision with a referendum.
Due to a law change in 2019, these costs won’t be held against the tax cap. That might make it easier to get the votes needed on the various school boards, since exceeding the cap means 60% of voters must agree to approve that school budget, rather than a simple majority. The change in the law likely inspired this proposal, as attempting to pass a budget in excess of the tax cap risks being stuck with no extra money at all. Funding the share within each district also provides for flexibility in how the money is secured: options include raising taxes, borrowing and even dipping into the fund balance. With the work stretched out over four school years, the best option may be different from one year to the next. Should this capital project be approved in a referendum, on the other hand, then the work will be financed via a BOCES bond offering, with the interest rate and payment schedule set forth therein rather than by the leaders of each district.
New Paltz’s trustees agreed to take up this question at a future meeting. BOCES administrators are asking school districts to vote on whether to approve the project between December 7-16.