As they prepare to debate a possible $107.1 million districtwide facilities project, members of the Kingston City School District Board of Education last week disagreed about how to view the fiscal viability of its now completed $137.5 million Kingston High School Second Century Project.
During a mostly-virtual school board meeting held on Wednesday, February 2, Audit and Finance Committee Chairman James Michael closed his regular report with concerns over the interest payments on the Second Century project and asked that trustees consider a smaller facilities project as a followup.
“We’re going to be paying interest on this project until the year 2037,” Michael said of the Second Century project. “It amounts to about $35 million. $115 million is the actual cost, $35 million the interest. It’s a $150 million project.”
Michael added that he thought the scope of the sweeping five-year $107.1 million capital plan that would cover its two middle schools and seven elementary schools was possibly too large. A key component of the five-year proposal is air-conditioning, though other upgrades are also included.
“The project is a large scale, and I think we should proceed with a smaller scale because I would like to be more fiscally responsible and accountable to the community,” Michael said. “Nine years ago we made the decision…to close down three (elementary) schools. And then we asked the community to approve the Second Century project for $137 million. And now we’re talking about a $107 million project. I would like everybody to really think about it before we move forward…Right now we are sitting on a $150 million liability.”
Fellow Trustee Nora Scherer questioned Michael’s decision to share his personal opinion as part of a committee report. “I think that it’s irresponsible for a committee chair to deliver something that is not the opinion of the entire committee in a public session,” Scherer said. “We have a retreat coming up, so this seems premature to even be discussing this. We have a retreat coming up on finances and how capital projects are financed in school districts. And I’m very much looking forward to that. That may have been an appropriate venue to bring that up.”
In addition to Michael, fellow trustees Priscilla Lowe, Herb Lamb, and Cathy Collins also serve on the Audit and Finance Committee, as do Claims Auditor Elizabeth Baganz, Deputy Superintendent for Business Allen Olsen, Treasurer Bethany Woodard, and Deputy Treasurer Anne Kleeschulte.
School Board President James Shaughnessy also disagreed with Michael’s message.
“Personally, I have a different opinion about that than you do, Mr. Michael,” Shaughnessy said. “It’s not that we spent $150 million on a project that we were authorized to spend $137.5 million on. We are under budget, we are not over budget.”
The Second Century referendum passed in December 2013 by a narrow margin of 2,265-2,082. Work performed during the project included the razing of the Myron J. Michael and Tobin-Whiston buildings, the addition of two new wings, extensive renovations of the original high school building, and upgrades to Kate Walton Field House. Even with the inclusion of the air-conditioning installation, the project still came in at around $14.5 million under budget. Last autumn, the School Board approved a $1.5 million project to install air-conditioning in the main building at KHS.
Shaughnessy said that projects like the Second Century work at Kingston High School were necessary to make up for decades of the district not maintaining its facilities.
“I think we’ve made tremendous progress in the district over the last 10 years in terms of making up for maintenance and improvements that were ignored for a long time,” Shaughnessy said. “There was a long period of time when there was very little. We had a lot of school building in the late-1980’s. There was the Salzmann project at the high school in 1978. And then we went…30 years without really taking care of year-to-year maintenance requirements that we have to take care of now…I think there are educational benefits to having children and teachers in well-maintained school buildings.”
More than 60 percent ‘aidable’
Superintendent Paul Padalino said that Michael’s perspective on the Second Century project and other facilities plans lacked nuance and gave an inaccurate representation of the costs involved.
“I think it’s really important that we have the accurate numbers,” Padalino said. “There’s no discussion about the 62 percent aid that we get coming in. The interest is aided. I think we have to have the appropriate numbers when we talk about the Second Century project. We’re also $12 million under budget as far as construction is concerned…That’s an important thing that the community hears all of the data, and that we have the correct data. We say $150 million of debt to the community, but 63 percent of that is still aidable, as it was in the past.”
Shaughnessy added that he thought the discussion of the fiscal merits of the $107.1 million facilities plan were premature, because while it has been discussed at prior meetings of the Board of Education, there has not yet been a formal presentation.
“I think we really need to have this discussion when there’s a proposal presented to the board for consideration,” Shaughnessy said. “We all have to have an opportunity to make our opinions known.”
The next meeting of the Audit and Finance Committee is scheduled for 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday, February 22. The next meeting of the KCSD Board of Education is scheduled for Wednesday, February 16.