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School Board Gives Administration Approval to Move Forward with a Massive Addition to Greenacres School

GAJuly12Ending years of debate, the Scarsdale School administration won the support of the school board for their recommendation for an expansive renovation and addition at Greenacres School at their July 6 meeting. The proposal for a tax neutral $64.8 million bond offering targeted for a vote in December 2017 will include $34 million for a renovation and expansion at Greenacres and $29 million for district wide upgrades.

District architects presented revised floor plans for the Greenacres School which would extend right to the sidewalk on Sage Terrace and Huntington Avenue. The last iteration of the plans had included the addition of three classrooms on Putnam Road. However, this new plan calls for the addition of four classrooms beyond the gym on Huntington Avenue instead. A 3,000 square foot learning commons, an 1,800 square foot multipurpose room and a kitchen would be added on the corner of Huntington Avenue and Sage Terrace, engulfing and expanding the newer multi-purpose room. The estimated cost for the work at Greenacres is $34 million. Though no designs or elevations were shown, the architects said that the look of the building would reflect the architectural elements of the current building.

The new renovation schematic was posted on the district's website at the eleventh hour – on the night before the July 6 meeting. Residents had little time to evaluate it or debate the merits of this very large addition to the school before the meeting the following morning. It was highly unusual to consider a project of this size at a July meeting of the board when many are out to town. Several of the speakers as well as the League of Women Voters asked for more time to study the plans but in the end the Board opted to move forward without affording time for community input.

The July 6th proposal addressed parents concerns about safety by including $1.5 million for trailers to be used to house students where needed during the renovation. Roger Smith, principal of BBS said these trailers could be used to accommodate up to eight classrooms or for other activities like gym or lunch.

The balance of the bond, or about $29 million, will fund infrastructure work at the other schools, most rated priority 1 or 2 on a recent district-wide facilities survey done by BBS. Items to be included are air handlers in classrooms, boilers, roofs, upgrades for ADA compliance, removal of asbestos tile, electrical upgrades and more. The administration to did not provide a comprehensive list of which projects would be funded at each school

A new item is security vestibules at all district buildings – which cost only $708,000 – a negligible amount of the overall bond. This new proposal eliminates the addition of lunchrooms and kitchens at Edgewood, Fox Meadow and Heathcote which received little enthusiasm from the community.

Safety: Hagerman and Mattey sought to answer many of the objections raised by the community and the board about risk to the children during the proposed renovation. They assured parents that all NYS safety guidelines would be followed and that there would be regular testing of the building during lead and asbestos abatement. They said that both BBS and the construction management firm have managed billions of dollars of school construction.

New vs. Renovation: The two attempted to respond to residents who asked for a long term analysis of the costs of a new school vs. a renovation by providing several analyses of the net present value of scenarios at varying inflation and discount rates. The analysis assumed a cost of $800 a square foot for the new building, a number that some claim is far above the cost of current school construction projects. In addition, Greenacres resident David Schwartz who works in finance took a look at the analysis and found that it was wrong. Mattey admitted that he had graduated from business school 20 years ago and said he would need to correct the numbers which vastly overstated the differential between a new and renovated school. However, even without an accurate analysis of the cost of a new school vs. a renovation, the School Board voted to approve the renovation.

On the issue of tax neutrality, Dr. Hagerman concluded that the board did not favor a bond that would raise school taxes and therefore limited his proposal to a $64.8 million bond referendum that would not raise taxes. He argued that building a new school at Greenacres would preclude the district from taking care of a lengthy list of facilities items "that must be addressed to avoid code violations, provide safer and healthier building environments and upgrade aging building heating, electrical, plumbing and roofing systems." He continued, "To not include these items in a bond issue would jeopardize not the integrity of our buildings but also the future instructional initiatives which must be funded through the general budget."

Hagerman also downplayed the importance of the learning environment saying, "21st century learning is 99% about the teachers. Though the space supports it, we are talking about the teachers. This is a secondary concern."


Public Comments:

During the public comments period, Tony Corrigio of Greenacres said, "I think there are two ways to avoid civil war here. If you pursue renovation get the kids out of the building. Three years in trailers? Are they safer there? It costs some money, maybe $4-5 million. And don't say there's not enough money when there was money for kitchens and cubbies in other schools to get everyone to vote for the bond." Turning to the evaluation of the cost of a new building he said, "You know what they say about financial analysis... garbage in garbage out. $60 million for a new building ... that $810 per square foot. It's unsubstantiated and bogus. Dr. Hagerman and BBS are compromised. Get another architect to do a proposal. Get real answers from real experts. It's a $45 million renovation with kids in the trailers. This is a 100 year decision to be made. Make sure that your priority is these kids."

Harriet Sobol said, "Those with and without children have the same position. I don't know anything about finance but I do know something about education: we are missing an opportunity to educate people about the difference between when our children went to school and today."

Mona Longman remarked, "My friend is a real estate broker and she tells me that suddenly all of the houses in Greenacres are coming on the market. Having meeting during July 4 when many are out of town and the next meeting in August is not right. The school is landlocked and now you are increasing the footprint even more. It was 8-10 feet from the road and it's even closer now. This is a neighborhood and there is no setback! What is this going to look like?"

Board Remarks:
When the Board was given a chance to pose questions, Natbony asked more questions about the cost differential of a new school vs. a renovation, saying, "Is it $5 million or $20 million, that's what I need to know."

Art Rublin asked why some of the classrooms in the proposed project would be far smaller than in the plan for Option B proposed by former district architects KG&D. Roger Smith replied saying that the minimum state requirements for a renovation are 900 square feet for a kindergarten classroom and 770 square feet for upper grades. He explained that the new classrooms would be 800 square feet.

Scott Silberfein asked how long the renovation would take and Smith estimated 26 months, spanning three summers. He said they moved the new classrooms to Huntington Avenue so that the existing classrooms on Putnam Road would not be affected during the construction.

Smith was also asked if the estimate of $800 a square foot for a new school could be high. He defended that figure saying there would be costs to demolish the old building and re-grade the site for fields.

Questioned about closing Huntington Avenue, Dr. Hagerman said he reviewed a legal opinion from the Village Attorney and said the matter would have to be presented to the state transportation committee and then be passed by both the state assembly and state senate. He said that these requests are not often approved.

Asked about drop off and pick up, parking and traffic, Smith said they had moved the construction off Putnam Road where he believed the children were dropped off and picked up. He said these issues needed further study.

Lee Maude asked for a better understanding of the energy performance contracts and it was explained that the district spends the funds on energy improvement initiatives like solar panels and achieves savings down the road from lower energy bills.

Nina Cannon asked if the Greenacres project would include the replacement of sanitary piping, steam heating and electric and was told that these would "not be touched in this renovation. They are not in the bond project." She also inquired about the status of a sustainability committee than had been formed in the spring. She also asked Dr. Hagerman, "Can we do a separate bond for air conditioning?"

At the conclusion of the discussion, Board members were asked to give their views on authorizing the district to move forward with the renovation plan. Six out of the seven gave Hagerman the green light.

Pam Fuehrer said that the plans met the district's objectives for educational excellence and adequacy and said she did not favor going above tax neutrality. She said , "Frankly I think It would be irresponsible not to support the recommendation to include all of the priorities for health and safety in this bond."

Nina Cannon said, "I support the administration's proposal. It has been proven from a financial standpoint and allows us to maintain all of our buildings. Of course I am concerned about safety, lighting and design but I support going down this path. "

Lee Maude emphasized that the Board has been listening and that she was "impressed by the change in design." She said, "I worked with KG&D and usually schools are built because of enrollment issues. I have not seen buildings torn down because of age. Teachers' relationships with our students are most important. It's no surprise that I accept your recommendation."

Art Rublin was the lone dissenter, saying "I am not there yet. I am not comfortable having this meeting during the day in July. I am concerned about rushing the process more than we need to. There are questions about classroom size, questions about drop off pick-up and parking ; these are important concerns. I think that the school building as proposed would be a better building than it is now – and I think that there are a lot of positives."

Chris Morin was in Iceland but gave Bill Natbony a letter to read in support of the renovations. He said that the board had previously voted to explore renovations and the facts they received support that decision. He said, "The renovation will exceed the needs of the students."

Scott Silberfein, who was elected Vice President of the board prior to the meeting concurred with the others, and said, "Me too. We can work on traffic, safety and parking later on. I am confident that we need to continue to pursue the process. A renovated Greenacres building will be educationally exceptional."

Newly elected Board President Bill Natbony summed it up, saying, "The District has substantial needs. This gives priority to the needs of Greenacres and accounts for other needs. There has to be a pressing need to exceed tax neutrality. Our architects say we don't need a new building. There remain implementation issues. What construction will be done while kids are in the schools? Should we look into moving them? I don't see a December vote set in stone. We should move forward with a bond and as a community we should come together and support the decision."

Parents with children in the school were surprised at the speed of the process and pressed the Board for more time to resolve many issues. Paulina Schwartz said, "This is renovation plan number four and the size of the addition keeps growing. It is the worst plan so far. If you think it is charming you don't go out to the property line and cover the building. You end up with a 100 year-old building with old lead pipes, old air handlers and no place for drop off and pickup. This is monstrous and it will be ugly. I was offended by the FAQ's. This is the largest renovation project the district has ever undertaken with the youngest kids in the oldest building. The safest way is with the kids outside the building. Where is the parking? Drop off and pick up? Where is the plan? The parents of GA don't want this plan. This is no better than what we have now."