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The Fear Factor

no-talking-signThis is the opinion of site founder Joanne Wallenstein: There's an awful lot of whispering going on around town. I can't count the number of times I've heard something like this in the past few weeks, "I can't say it out loud, but .....") What is the unmentionable they are afraid to address? It's not the bombastic POTUS Donald Trump, the natural disasters that are overtaking our planet or the razing of homes and trees in the 'dale. No, the thing they're afraid to discuss is the proposed 2017 school bond, the one that includes a massive addition to Greenacres school and new boilers, roofs and security vestibules at other district schools.

And why would anyone be scared to talk about it? Here's my interpretation:

The atmosphere at Board of Education meetings is tense –- it appears that board members are reluctant to share their concerns or question the administration's assumptions and recommendations. At meetings, they tend to vote as a pack and apologize if they have to pose a question. It looks like they are more concerned with the superintendent's approval than representing the residents who chose them to serve.

When out in the community, board members are cautious about interactions with individuals as they've been warned that the Board of Education needs to speak as one voice, and individual board members should refrain from commenting on their own views.

Same for the teachers – they are reticent and have shied away from conveying any concerns about the building conditions at Greenacres or how the proposed plans will impact the students and the teaching environment. Why? Could speaking out affect tenure decisions or future class assignments?

Parents of children in the schools have openly told me they are afraid that objecting to the current plan will affect their children's education. They fear their children will be "punished" for their parents' views with undesirable class placements.

And even those with no children in the schools are reluctant to speak openly. They don't want to stir the pot with their neighbors who may have opposing views.

So since no one wants to speak out loud, here are some of the concerns and questions that seem to be running through our minds.

Timing:

After a six-month moratorium on bond discussions, the superintendent re-opened the process by retaining new architects in the spring and announcing plans for a decision by the board in October for a bond referendum in December, 2017. A single scheme for the re-design of Greenacres was released on August 24, at a special Board Meeting when many were out of town. Few details about the interior space, educational underpinnings, infrastructure, parking or traffic have been released and no design options were presented. The administration has not scheduled public forums or time for community comment and is now presenting the plan as a "done deal." Why the rush to the finish line?

Project Goals:

The administration worked with the architects to devise a plan but failed to involved the community in prioritizing goals and outlining building needs. As a result, many are questioning what's included in the building and what's not being done. For instance, a large cafeteria is being added but water and sanitary pipes that are decades beyond their useful lives will remain. New bathrooms will be added, but the old ones, which are badly in need of upgrades, will not be touched. Mold and moisture, perennial problems on the lower level of the school, will be remediated with dehumidifiers rather than by addressing the underlying issues.

The administration defends the addition of the cafeteria, claiming that in a few years PTA's will be barred from serving lunch. However, this "need" should be balanced against the risk of adding on to to a building with a damp foundation and aged plumbing that could pose risks to the students and faculty down the road. Witness for example what happened to Westchester County and Scarsdale Village when they were charged with alleged violation of the Federal Clean Water Act. Where is an accounting of the expense of maintaining this aging building and the real costs of kicking the can down the road?

What's become of our decision-making processes and civic engagement?

Neighborhood Impact:

The new plan saves Greenacres field, but at what cost to the neighborhood? The proposed building encompasses almost the entire building lot and soars three stories high from the base which is just feet from the sidewalk on Huntington Avenue. Residents who were shocked by the bulk and siting of the new retail building in front of Balducci's at One Palmer Avenue will no doubt have a similar reaction when the framing starts in front of the school. Though Scarsdale Village requires builders to set homes back 30 feet from the street and limit bulk and floor area ratio, the school does not have to conform to local code even though the school is surrounded by homes. Will the new structure block views and light? Have the homeowners on Sage Terrace and Putnam Road been notified? Do they have concerns? Why did former Assistant Superintendent Linda Purvis insist that the lot site was "maxed out"? ... and why is this expansion okay now?

In June the Board of Education asked the administration for a traffic study but to date nothing has been released to the public. That leaves many questions up in the air. How will kids be dropped off and picked up – during and after the construction. The green area in front of the school has been eliminated. Where will kids and parents meet up and where will parents and faculty park their cars?

For the new cafeteria, how will food delivery trucks approach the building and where will garbage and dumpsters be sited?

Construction Concerns:

One group of parents has been more vocal. These are the parents of children who will be in the school at the time of the construction. They are very concerned about the safety of their children and environment hazards during the construction process. They point out that though children usually remain in the building during construction, nothing of this scale has ever been done at an elementary school in Scarsdale. They have asked that their kids be relocated during the process, but they have been silenced and rebuffed when they attempted to convey their concerns to the Board of Education. At the September 11 meeting, a worried father who attempted to warn the board about the risks of lead dust was yelled off the mic when he exceeded is allotted time. Other parents want to know if there are contingency plans for the kids if environmental monitors find that conditions are unsafe or delays in timing prevent occupation of the building.

Other District Facility Spending:

About 40% of the $65 million bond will go to infrastructure items such as roofs, ventilation systems, boilers and security vestibules at all district schools. These types of items have been traditionally funded out of the general operating budget of the district which allocates a certain percentage of each year's budget to facilities improvements.

This change in policy, to utilize a bond to fund repairs rather than improvements, was not fully vetted by the board and the community and it is a decision with tremendous impact. Some suspect that spending these funds on repairs is a disguised attempt to decrease school spending and taxes in the future. Is this what the community wants? It may well be, but sufficient time has not been allotted to examine whether this is a good decision or not.

Most importantly, some are asking why a Superintendent of Schools is pushing the Board of Education to cut corners rather than champion world-class education and facilities. Instead of requesting funds to increase classroom size, improve recreational facilities and bring forward-thinking educational design to our schools, he's looking for ways to scrimp and save on the backs of Scarsdale's kids. Who is behind this agenda?

These are just a few of the many questions I have heard and I am sure you have others. But you only have a few weeks to get them answered before the Board votes on the bond referendum. So if there's something you want to know, email the Board now – or if you're really brave, speak up at a Board of Education meeting. You'll only have three minutes – so say it quickly.

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