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Opinion: Too Many Questions Remain to Move Forward with a Bond Referendum

questions(This statement was read by Diane Greenwald at the December 4, 2017 meeting of the Scarsdale Board of Education.) Thank you for this opportunity to speak tonight at this public forum and for your dedication to your work on this bond effort.

Recently, I have heard several in district leadership express a desire not to 'bind' future boards with promises or plans because, it seems, that some of you feel bound today to invest in Greenacres by a promise from the past. The implication, whether intentional or not, is that Greenacres is lucky, as if investment is an appeasement to an energized yet fractured subset of our community, and that this single plan, at about $33 million, is the last chance for Greenacres to be a priority. While I am sympathetic to any fatigue around Greenacre's discussions, I worry that this narrative undermines healthy community engagement, and is not leading to adequate questioning, informed decision-making, appropriate compromise or successful buy in.

As I understand it, there are demonstrated and critical issues driving investment into Greenacres -- and past promises are based on real needs. The recent report around mold in the basement and in classrooms at Greenacres reminded me to reflect on the original Greenacres project drivers, and here is how I understand them:

1) Water and its effects - There are unique water issues, perhaps due to a higher water table at GAs than at other older schools, that have led to mold growth, and while this district keeps our buildings tidy and claims to keep Greenacres remediated, children currently being taught in the basement, are clearly not intended to be taught there into the future. Which brings me to...

2) Size - the school loses about 2,200 NSF (I think) of instruction space from the basement and there simply isn't room to move that upstairs in an already tight facility. This building is, in fact, too small for the current and foreseeable population, all the demographic modeling aside. We heard Dr. Hagerman present his view that a decreasing population is a key reason not to build a new school, but then, months later, Dr. Hagerman noted that if we build an appealing school addition, new families might be attracted to move into the area, overriding decreasing demographic projections. One can assume that if an addition would be an attraction, a new school would be too. So, I mean no disrespect, but I think perhaps demographic projections need to factor in improvements; otherwise they are not the best data points for determining investment. The bottom line is the school is not the adequate size or space allocation for modern instructional demands and might not be even when expanded.

3) Site Location– I understand that the district architect is confident they can secure SED permission for another expansion on this tight site, however, the expansion does not solve some of the problems of the site, including: having a playground across a street; placing a hulking addition with over-scale massing in a residential location; ongoing parking issues, pick up issues, or access problems for building services. All these site items are safety concerns. Maybe these issues are lower priorities for Greenacres families, which I am not, but first priority or not, the issues remain there and are real.

4) Deferred Maintenance and Planned Improvements – The June 12 Presentation identifies about $12M of known need. I believe about $5-6 Million is not being included in this bond. Which raises the question of why not? Once working at Greenacres, are there economies of scale that would make inclusion of some or all of these items a benefit? Are we foregoing cost efficient opportunities that will burden future boards? And are we really spending so much money and not getting everything done?

5) Instructional Space Improvement Opportunities – Once recognizing the need for expansion and improvement specific to this school, there is an opportunity to reorganize rooms, fix space constraints and modernize for our district's stellar educational practices. Interesting goals include creating flexibly and increasing collaboration spaces; adding a cafeteria and kitchen; improving access for all students, and access to light and technology; expanding storage for extended, focused project-based learning; expanding classroom sizes to meet national standards; including new furniture and maybe sinks in all classrooms; and more! These are all worthy goals, and this seems to be the area of some focus, with some notable improvements, but also noticeable omissions leaving many ideas unexplored and some in the community underwhelmed and clearly the complications of construction and health remain worrisome to many more.
Whether addressed now, or later, whether a bond package passes now or not, all these issues – and likely more -- will remain a part of future capital investment conversations. They are not going away.

And I still have a lot of questions.

I have been told repeatedly, even when not asking, that the idea of a 'new school' is a ship that has sailed. And I have watched with confusion as the Board determined $30-$35M as the 'feels right' amount to spend on Greenacres. OK. I think it's a sizable amount of money and so much can be done with that. But I think the conversation got shut down before we truly have understood what is the return on investment for this reno/expansion for Greenacres. I still am unclear if are we getting the right fixes for this money. Are these the long-term solutions? Is this building really safe for significant investment and upheaval? Are the high water table and the mold-growth issues fully dealt with? Is a commercial dehumidifier, which will need to be replaced some day, the best approach? Mold spores in classrooms and festering in walls are disease carrying and children are vulnerable– its concerning!

Are the priority learning needs being addressed? Why was a GA building committee convened and then disbanded without capturing their good thinking and ideas about learning and building priorities on the pre-schematic design concept? Should the bond pass, what is the plan for project oversight, that includes community and board input/review/approval as the project morphs through schematic design, design development, construction documentation and as it is value engineered, which could significantly impact scope? Having put out to the community very specific deliverables, has this board got a clear sense of the conceptual priorities that will drive this process that will surely require hard choices as the design and cost estimates grow more accurate and detailed? Again, considering how much is not done, how long will this last?

And my questions go on...
Why are critical district decisions around food service and air conditioning postponed in favor of roof and boiler maintenance, projects that could perhaps be more easily tucked into annual operating budgets over time? How is the notion of 'health and safety' actually driving inclusion of maintenance and planned improvement in this bond? In some ways, everything is health and safety – it's a big umbrella. I applaud the attention to ADA compliance, to make accessible all of the facilities at the highest level to our most vulnerable students and staff and security vestibules are a sad reality. But, I don't think we ever put children in harms way where they experience feelings of insecurity in their environments. So then, how do engineering designations, which I have struggled to follow, provide logical plans for some inclusion over others?

Maybe there are good answers to some and even all of these questions, but I have been paying close attention, and I still don't know how this bond package is fiscally prudent and meeting our priority district goals.

I don't live in Greenacres and I have no children in elementary school, and will never see the direct benefits of this spending for my own kids. But I believe that investment into education is good for everyone, and that leaving Scarsdale better than we found it is our privilege and duty. I don't have an agenda and I really want to like this package, but I think there are too many questions remaining to move forward with a referendum vote right now – which if voted down, leaves too many unknowns about why. And I don't think I am alone.

A lot of District time and energy and expense went into understanding the full extent of district capital needs and we all know the district has more need than the bond includes. To be fiscally prudent, we may need to spend more money than what debt is rolling off the books. The district has committed to a notion of tax neutrality, but it is an arbitrary goal that is not linked to the demonstrated – and significant -- district needs. Instead, it is linked to the willing investors from a generation back, but their investment is not a sustainable structure. For me to support any bond, in addition to trusting decisions for bond inclusion, whatever the amount, I need to understand (at least broadly) how we are planning to finance and address the significant needs remaining out of this bond.

Sensitivity to Scarsdale's high taxes and to tax fatigue could be accomplished through good planning, clearer prioritizations, more honest dialogue and a ground-up process intent on inclusion and community education. Maybe this could and should be driven by the emerging new strategic plan that can reflect for us our shared learning commitments and our dreams for our children, something that is built together and goes beyond valuable but primarily tactical lists of key tasks, that can act as the tool to guide our dialogues.

For Scarsdale's entire history, this community has stepped up when needs are understood and I believe we can be counted to again, as long as it makes sense.

If you wish to answer some of my questions, if you share some of my questions or those shared by others here tonight, then I don't think you are done. I greatly appreciate the work you have put in, and I think you are on the right track with these dialogues and discussions of late, but as mentioned, I think there is a need for additional and holistic review, reflection, and reconsideration. It will take bravery to ask for what is truly needed. And Scarsdale might surprise you and step up. I don't have a crystal ball and I don't issue threats, I don't know what is gonna happen, but I am not alone.

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