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redquestionAfter months of study, the League of Women Voters of Scarsdale issued a surprising statement to the Scarsdale School administration and the Board of Education at their January 22, 2018 meeting. For the first time anyone can remember, the League came out against a school bond, saying, "We support a bond ... but not this bond." Though the League supports investment in the Scarsdale Schools, they "disagree with this proposal for substantive reasons and for the way in which it was conceived and presented to the community." Reviewing the development of the proposed $64.9 million 2018 bond, the statement, says,"the process for the development of this Bond was flawed and thus undermined the League's confidence in the result."

Furthermore, the consensus was that the community was not provided opportunities to give input on issues such as school cafeterias, air conditioning and sustainability or to vet options to renovate the Greenacres School vs. building a new school. They also questioned the Board's decision to limit the discussion to tax neutral solutions.

The statement concludes with a list of recommendations on how the Board can reach out to the community in the future, develop goals and a vision and build consensus.

The statement reflects the consensus of the membership of the League of Women Voters of Scarsdale and was read by Mary Beth Evans, who chaired the bond study committee, Linda Doucette-Ashman, co-President of the League and League Board member Amy Cooper.

Read the entire statement below.


Acknowledgements
The League of Women Voters of Scarsdale (the "League") thanks members of the Board of Education (the "Board") and District Administration (the "Administration") for their presentation and responses to League questions on the Proposed 2018 School Facilities Bond (the "Bond") at the League's General Membership Meeting held January 10, 2018.

The League acknowledges that much time and effort have gone into developing the Bond and we thank the Administration and the Board for their additional effort spent in preparing for our meeting and for providing the audience with informational handout materials on the Bond. The League also appreciates that members of the Board and Administration allowed additional time to respond to numerous audience member questions that extended the public information session past the scheduled time.

The League appreciates the opportunity to comment on the Bond. This statement reflects the consensus of League members at a meeting held immediately following the public information session on January 10, 2018.

Position
The League does not support the 2018 School Facilities Bond. To be clear, the League struggled with this statement because we do support investment in Scarsdale school facilities in order to maintain and enhance Scarsdale educational excellence and to ensure the health, safety and security of our students and staff. Moreover, we support a bond as a means of funding projects that address major facilities needs. We disagree with this proposal for substantive reasons and for the way in which it was conceived and presented to the community. Should the Bond be voted down, the League hopes that the Board and Administration will begin a new bond process without delay and with a more fully integrated long-range vision. In short, we support a bond but not this particular Bond.

Major Objections & Concerns
While we recognize that no bond process is perfect, the process for the development of this Bond was flawed and thus undermined the League's confidence in the result. The League notes that the process did not provide:

  • Timely, structured and thorough outreach to identify broad community values and priorities early on;
  • Timely, thorough and broad community input on such issues as elementary school cafeterias and kitchens, district-wide classroom air conditioning, and sustainability;
  • An opportunity for the community to thoroughly explore and vet all cost/value options;
  • A full cost/benefit analysis to justify the Administration's recommendation and Board's 
decision to renovate and expand versus building a new Greenacres School; or
  • A clear and compelling explanation of the Board's decision that the scope of the bond should be "tax neutral" (i.e., resulting in no associated tax increase to homeowners), especially given the long list of identified work and current favorable borrowing climate.


Furthermore, most conspicuously and significantly absent from the process that produced this Bond was a long-range vision for all of our schools. The process did not provide a coherent picture of what our buildings need in order to preserve and enhance a high quality Scarsdale education or a plan to address all facilities needs moving forward. The League believes that an opportunity was missed to develop a long-range master facilities plan and to present a framework for the future that could bring the community together in support of all of our school buildings.

The League acknowledges that ultimately:

• In late fall 2017, the Board did shift the bond vote date forward to include additional 
meetings that involved open Board member deliberation and opportunity for public input 
on key priorities and values;
• In October 2017, the Administration did articulate educational goals for the Greenacres 
School project; and
• In late December 2017, the District did provide the public with new informational 
materials that now present the Bond projects in a more digestible format and are readily accessible on the District website.


However, the League maintains that each of these positive actions were taken too late in the process. We therefore reiterate several concerns with the process expressed in various public statements at School Board meetings since July 2017 by the League School Bond Study Committee and League Board, including:

• The overwhelming volume of data presented at each public meeting;
• The constant shifts in narrative following real-time District decision-making;
• The absence of a clear statement of the Board's overall objective as it relates to the 
quality of our schools and Scarsdale's educational values; and
• The insufficient opportunity for public input and insufficient Board deliberation to fully 
inform the public in a manner that allowed the community more timely opportunity to engage, question, challenge and/or support the School Board's educational rationale and fiscal assumptions in deciding the key parameters of the Bond. 


The League further concludes that the District's presentation of how the proposed Bond project would address Greenacres School's educational needs lacked specificity. In the end, we lacked a sufficiently detailed picture of how students would experience the proposed new addition and changes to the existing building, and how the project would connect to the District's larger educational vision not only for Greenacres but for all District schools. There was also no clear answer provided as to how long we could expect the $35 million investment to serve the community. 


The League remains uncertain that the Bond's plan for Greenacres School represents the best investment of the community's resources. The League recognizes that the Bond's proposed project for Greenacres School would realize some long-awaited improvements and address some of the District's stated educational, health and safety goals for that building; however, the League has concerns that key spatial, health and safety needs are not being adequately addressed.

Recommendations
In order to produce a bond that maintains and enhances Scarsdale educational excellence in a fiscally responsible way that is in the best interests of the community, the League believes that the Board should implement an improved bond process that:

  • Begins with more timely, effective and thorough outreach to identify broad community values and priorities;
  • Articulates a clear vision as to the purpose of the bond;
  • Presents to the community a coherent picture of what our buildings need in order to 
preserve and enhance a high quality Scarsdale education, including sharing with the 
community the District's benchmarking method and results;
  • Develops the bond as part of a long-range facilities plan that provides a framework 
for the future of all of the schools; and
  • Is collaborative and builds community consensus from the ground-up. 


The League believes these process recommendations align with the Board's statements highlighting the importance of acting in partnership with the community. We agree that a successful bond process and proposal that makes sense for our community requires us to work together. To this end, a bond process must ensure that we all start from the same place and proceed forward together in a methodical manner, with a shared understanding of the basic underlying assumptions and overall District goals and educational values driving the process that a proposed facilities bond would address.

Conclusion 

While the League does not support this Bond, we support investment in our school facilities and a collaborative bond process that builds community consensus from the ground-up and results in a shared long-range vision for maintaining and enhancing our excellent Scarsdale schools.

The Bond vote will take place on Thursday, February 8, 2018 from 7 am to 9 pm at the Scarsdale Middle School. Information on how to register to vote and/or to obtain an absentee ballot is available by clicking either the "New Bond Website" link on the homepage of the District website (www.scarsdaleschools.org) or the "Voter Information" tab on our League website (www.lwvs.org). 
Respectfully submitted, 
Mary Beth Evans, Chair, School Bond Study Committee Linda Doucette-Ashman and Janice Starr, Co-Presidents League of Women Voters of Scarsdale

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questionmarkThe League of Women Voters of Scarsdale posed some tough questions on the proposed 2018 school bond at their public forum on Wednesday January 10 2018 at Scarsdale Library. The $64.8 million bond would be roughly split between a renovation and expansion at Greenacres Elementary School and infrastructure work including ventilation, boilers, roofs, site work and ADA compliance upgrades at the rest of the district schools. The bond referendum will be held on February 8, 2018

Mary Beth Evans chaired the League's bond study committeeand presented the League's questions to the administration in advance of the meeting. Superintendent Thomas Hagerman and Assistant Superintendent Stuart Mattey arrived with their answers in hand. They were joined by School Board President William Natbony, Vice President Scott Silberfein and Greenacres School Principal Sharon Hill. Following that portion of the meeting, the floor was opened up to attendees who asked their own questions about the proposal.

Plans for Greenacres Elementary School drew the lion's share of the scrutiny, with questions posed about the scope of the plan, the decision to renovate rather than construct a new school, environmental concerns, sustainability and educational adequacy. Also questioned was the decision to assume that any capitol plan had to be tax neutral.

In a discussion about what priorities went into the decision about Greenacres, Dr. Hagerman presented a list that included some items that had not been previously reviewed, namely historic preservation and respecting neighborhood building character. It should be noted that the proposed building design extends very close to the street, includes two large retaining walls and maxes out the three-acre building site.

Here are the priorities for Greenacres identified by Dr. Hagerman:

  • Optimizing a design that works within the existing footprint – as we know, all of our older schools are on fairly tight lots and that's sometimes a tricky proposition
  • Ensuring proper drainage, elevations and walkways that fit within the overall design.
  • Keeping obviously the historical aesthetic of the existing school and the overall neighborhood – that was an important consideration at the onset of this process relative to Greenacres.
  • Ensuring shape, scale, scope matched the scale of other existing homes and buildings in the immediate proximity
  • Including sustainable elements and new plantings as part of the design.
  • Creating indoor and outdoor spaces that capitalize on natural light and the beauty of the adjacent park.

The budget for Greenacres School includes $1 million for historic preservation, which according to Assistant Superintendent Stuart Mattey has "been budgeted in the proposed bond in order to provide the ability for enhanced detailing, both interior and exterior in order to preserve, maintain and further the integrity of the historic architectural elements/qualities of this building."

In response to the League's following question, "Are there issues and needs at Greenacres School that the final bond project will not address? If so, please explain? Dr. Hagerman said, "We believe that all major needs will be addressed by this proposed bond with the caveat with new construction and renovations there is always the potential for some repairs so I don't want to assert that no work will occur at Greenacres after the bond project is complete. We are satisfied that it will be treated as regular maintenance." Stuart Mattey added, "The major part of this scope is building conditions.... electrical, plumbing. These have not been replaced for decades. These do wear out."

This was somewhat confusing as the district had previously identified $5 - $6 million more in additional infrastructure needs for the building that will need to be addressed beyond the work specified in the bond.

You can watch the presentation online here and read our transcription of the text below.

Here is a summary of some of the questions asked by the audience and the administration's response:

Susie Rush said, "I used to be engaged but have not been in the last year. People are going to make a decision to vote – maybe just based on what they hear from their friends or from reading the paper. I know my husband is going to ask why he should vote for this bond. I have to have a basis to argue it cogently. One of the biggest elements of this bond is Greenacres. The question is, why did we choose to renovate vs. build a new building? I have read some of the materials. I am not seeing points I can spout out about what I think. Can you give me 3 or 4 reasons why the board decided to go with renovation rather than new?"

Dr. Hagerman said, "There is not one reason. There were priorities established like educational adequacy and historical preservation. There were a number of issues that were raised. We felt a renovation and expansion best matched those. It was the architects and engineers opinion that Greenacres was a viable building, that it had some issues as all old building have issues, but they thought it was structurally a beautiful building, a pleasant building and with the proposed renovation and expansion we could make it an absolute diamond."

He continued, "The issues that were identified around classroom space, the adequacy of bathrooms, around the food service, around the multipurpose space are all being accomplished absolutely in the renovation that is proposed. The tax neutrality question came out as a primary consideration at the very beginnings of this process. Unlike the 2014 bond which was "tell us what you want, what you would like to see," this started with a hard look at every single building. I don't know if that had ever been done. When we did this, we said, we have a lot of needs. We have code compliance issues, we have space issues, we have educational issues, we have food service issues ... in order to take care of those issues and maintain neutrality, this was the best solution."

Board President Bill Natbony added, "We were comfortable that we could do it right at Greenacres and still do the other work across the district."

Greenacres Principal Sharon Hill said, "The process gave me and the teachers the opportunity to participate in the process. There are many ways we make do with the way the building serves us. It's not unusual to find the children working in the hallways on the floor. Because the space – for the older children --- is smaller. On indoor recess days it's hard to manipulate where the children are going to be. The proposal helps us to resolve some of those issues. We have a nice plan that addresses all of our needs at this point."

Victor Goldberg questioned district priorities. He said, "Suppose tax neutrality had been given a number that was 10% more. What would you have done? I was wondering what you left off? Interest rates are pretty low. I am not sure "tax neutrality uber alles is the right philosophy."

Dr. Hagerman replied, "We identified millions of dollars of additional work that the district is taking on through our operating budget. There was a lot of other work. Much of this is life, safety and code compliance. There are still wish lists for greenhouses and playgrounds. That was not entertained at all as part of this work."

Michelle Sterling said, "I find there to be many glaring omissions in this bond – not "nice to haves" but glaring omissions with this bond, one of the major ones is with the parking and drop off and pick up situation that is not is not addressed with this bond. That is not a nice to have. That has to do with the safety of our children and I think Principal Hill and any parent who sees the situation knows that it's a very unsafe situation and it has been this way for years. What's the plan to address that?"

She added, "My second one is that the district has hired a publicity firm to promote this bond. Is that true? Did we hire a publicity firm for the last bond? How much are we paying them and why are we feeling the need to do this? Thank you for your volunteer time."

Dr. Hagerman said, "There are a whole lot of things we are working on as a district that are not necessarily in this bond. Parking is a great example. We have parking issues at every one of our schools. We understand that parking in a neighborhood that was not designed for that kind of traffic flow around the school is an issue. We did look at a couple of items relative to Greenacres and the parking options were not sufficient. So we are continuing to look at it. We understand it is a critical issue."greenacresBBS

He continued, "We do have a public relations firm, Zimmerman and Edelson. The amount of volunteer hours for that effort on the last bond was insane. The timeline around this bond, the complexity of this bond, some of the unrest that came out as a result of conflicting views about this lead us to believe this was necessary to get out effective, good timely information to the community and so that was a decision that we made, not to promote the bond in a positive way, but to share accurate information about what was going on.... To make sure that people understood what the proposal was. I have only been here for four years so I can't answer for how long - but we have had committees doing this work. About the cost, $10,000 Stuart is telling me? It's a BOCES service and the cost is about $10,000. (Someone in the audience said the cost was previously reported at $18,000 but Mattey said that some of this would be reimbursed by BOCES)

Mona Longman said, "My question is also about the costs. In the past we were told that $33 million is going into the renovation and there is another $5-$6 million of lower priority items that still need to be done. And air conditioning could be more to be put into the building. Are we in the mid $40's? I question whether that's the best way to spend our money. There are other buildings being built around the country for under $40 million – two of which are zero energy schools. Other districts are talking about sustainability and low energy and we're going in the opposite direction and I don't understand why. You're talking about putting a lot of money into renovation... over $40 million – why is this a good use of my money?"

Dr. Hagerman responded saying, "I think we reviewed all the information about why we think this is a good renovation and expansion and met the criteria for all of them. We believe that this is the right move. Will we not spend more money on Greenacres moving forward? Of course we will. I don't know how to answer the question about air conditioning. We're divided on this issue. I have heard opposite views on this for the limited days that it will be used."

He continued, "On the issue of sustainability – we are doing a lot of efforts across the district. We are not going backwards. We can look at Scarsdale Village. Of course buildings are being razed and rebuilt. But the number of people who choose renovations and expansions over building a brand new house has to do with the character aesthetic. Sustainability has been part of our RFP. In terms of toilets, lighting – we have been making efforts in all these things."

Board President Bill Natbony added, "Without understanding where these other schools are or what's included does not mean they are comparable to us. We are very comfortable with the costs and estimates we have received."

Karen Brew asked, "What is the vision for all the 100 year-old buildings? How will you deal with all of that and keep all schools up to date?"

Dr. Hagerman said, "I am not going to tell you who is next in line to get major work done. We have heard similar concerns about other schools. Right now we are living in this moment. I have not thought one second about a bond in the future. That will be a community process. We will identify the needs at that time. I can't say anything about the future."

Nancy Alderman posed a question about the environmental hazards in the school. Mold was found in Greenacres School in October of this year, and the lead pipes in the building will not be replaced in this renovation. She said, "I am a first time, long time. I have been a member of the league but I have never come to a meeting. I am deeply concerned about health and safety. I am concerned about the mold and the lead in the pipes. The mold can be remediated and it can come back"

Dr. Hagerman agreed, saying, "Yes, mold is chronic problem, in your own home, in your basement in your shower. You have to constantly clean and remediate. That's the nature of mixing air and moisture together. We issued a report. We remediated four spaces with mold and they are completely remediated. Do we believe it will never come back? No, it will. We have put together a plan for remediation to test each school on a rotating basis. Randomized testing. We share your concern. We proactively tested for lead before it became a state issue. We remediated for lead. We are committed to making air quality and all contaminants a priority in the future in all buildings."

Cynthia Dunne discussed restoration vs. renovation. She said, "I have just gone through a restoration and expansion of a 100 year-old house. There are costs that you are going to run into that you never expected. What's the plan for the overages? If you are going to do in a sustainable fashion, it's going to ramp up the costs way above any architects estimate. At the end of the day we found it would have been break even to knock it down and rebuild it as a 100% efficient home. Was that analysis done? Did you compare the cost of rebuilding vs. restoring? You'll never get to 99% efficiency on an old building."

Stuart Mattey said, "The contingencies are built into the numbers to cover the unknown. The architects designed and built older buildings. Dollar wise it is covered. Time wise we are aware of those possibilities. The estimates for a new building are on the website."

Following the public session, the League held a consensus meeting for League members only. Using the feedback from that session they will issue a consensus statement that will be read at the January 22, 2018 meeting of the Board of Education.

You can watch the meeting in its entirety on SPTV. However here is a summary of some of the responses to the questions posed by the League of Women Voters:

Question #1
What is the District's vision for Scarsdale school facilities that the bond is intended to achieve? And how will the bond projects serve to maintain and enhance current and future Scarsdale excellence in education?

Dr. Hagerman

Educational vision is expressed as part of values. There is a legacy of excellence found in our current transition plan. What has influenced this work is long term planning, tax neutrality, SET 2.0, K-12 wellness initiative, students voice and choice and the technology needed to meet these goals.

Health and safety is a value. So we commissioned building studies to optimize learning spaces for students to thrive. We developed long term plans for both the bond and for planning purposes. The projects in the 2018 bond all address health and safety and security issues for example new fresh air systems in elementary schools. At Edgewood and Fox Meadow these systems do not meet current state requirements. Security vestibules and cameras will be constructed at all elementary schools. At Greenacres, the learning environment will be optimized for student achievement, new 4th and 5th grade classrooms will be provided and the learning commons will provide opportunities for more creative learning for all of our students. Reconstruction of existing space will result in new art, maker space and music rooms plus a cafeteria, which none of our other schools except Quaker Ridge has."

Question 2
We understand that flexible, collaborative learning space, access to advanced technology and sustainable buildings are some of the features of today's optimal K-12 learning environments. Please describe how the 21st-century spatial needs of the schools were assessed and how the final bond proposal addresses such needs?

Dr. Hagerman:
Major elements of a 21st century classroom include: flexibility, accessibility for all, even those with disabilities, mobility, spaces that allow for different types of learners, technology-infused spaces. Students should be inspired by their environment and have access to light and the natural world. The proposed spaces were assessed given these values. District and national norms were also part of this process. The classrooms identified for expansion have been identified based on these benchmarks. The smallish 4th and 5th grade classrooms will be part of the expansion and will overlook the beautiful park across the street.

Question 3
What specific building infrastructure and spatial work is needed but not included in the final bond proposal? And if some schools have yet to undergo a full spatial needs assessment, when do you anticipate this will occur?

Dr. Hagerman:
We started out with a different architect, KG&D and then continued with BBS when they came on board. They identified every issue. We went through these item by item and prioritized them and decided who would be responsible for them. There is a scope of work that is not included in this bond that we are taking care of through our ongoing maintenance budget or in our 2018-19 budget.

All of the buildings have gone through a spatial needs assessment. We are still talking about elements of a Scarsdale 21st century classroom. There has been a lot of talk about square footage over time, and it doesn't matter if you have a house that's 1,000 square feet or 2,000 square feet, if one house is filled with furniture and casework and they other one is minimally designed. It's how you use that space. So we've been talking about prototyping 21st century classrooms in the district for a number of years. For example at Edgewood, they have Room 18 an experimental classroom where students came in and tried different designs. We've been looking at furniture like stand-up desks. We'll collect information and data about their experience with that and decide if there is going to some creep of that across the building or at the district level.

Question 4
Please describe the design goal for Greenacres School and the process by which it was determined.

Dr. Hagerman:
Maximizing space and educational adequacy for both current and anticipated needs including classroom and multipurpose space

Optimizing a design that works within the existing footprint – as we know, all of our older schools are on fairly tight lots and that's sometimes a tricky proposition

Ensuring proper drainage, elevations and walkways that fit within the overall design

Keeping obviously the historical aesthetic of the existing school and the overall neighborhood – that was an important consideration at the onset of this process relative to Greenacres.

Ensuring shape, scale, scope matched the scale of other existing homes and buildings in the immediate proximity

Including sustainable elements and new plantings as part of the design

Creating indoor and outdoor spaces that capitalize on natural light and the beauty of the adjacent park

And including the feedback of the school and district staff – and as folks know we had a lot of community and parent input as well.

Question 5
Are there issues and needs at Greenacres School that the final bond project will not address? If so, please explain.

Dr. Hagerman
There is a significant amount of work and it is quite comprehensive. There are a host of things we recognize that the district is already taking care of. It is going to be a tight budgeting year. We all recognize concerns about changes that are occurring at the federal and state level so we did much of this work before we knew about these proposed changes. So I would encourage everyone to follow the budget discussions to see how much of this we will be able to get done in the next year and of course over the next five or ten years.

This question was specific to Greenacres, so let me be very clear about this. We believe that all major needs will be addressed by this proposed bond with the caveat with new construction and renovations there is always the potential for some repairs so I don't want to assert that no work will occur at Greenacres after the bond project is complete. We are satisfied that it will be treated as regular maintenance.

Stuart Mattey – "The major part of this scope is building conditions. Electrical, plumbing. These have not been replaced for decades. These do wear out."

Question:
What is the duration of the proposed bond and what is the useful life of the proposed Greenacres School asset – i.e., total building structure – once complete?

Stuart Mattey
"Work will occur over an 18-month period. The construction period is 18 months."

Mary Beth Evans:
In sum, how long would you say this investment is going to serve the community?

Stuart Mattey
"It's hard to predict the life of a building. We have buildings here that have lasted very long. We have been fortunate. We have invested in all of our buildings. We budget $325,000 a year for pointing and roof repairs. The roofs we are repairing are well out of warrantee."

Dr. Hagerman
Most of our buildings are close to 100 years old. What great learning spaces they are because of the folks that take care of them. We are expecting that same return on the bond proposal we are suggesting.

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costaricaThe Steinberg family of Scarsdale died tragically on the last day of a 6-day Costa Rican adventure trip run by Backroads Travel of Berkeley, California. The plane they were on was also carrying a 32 year-old Backroads guide who died in the crash.

Having taken quite a few Backroads trips myself, I reached out to the company to see if we could learn more about what happened. I exchanged emails with Backroads spokesperson Liz Einbinder who explained that the Steinbergs had taken a Costa Rican tour that lead them through the cloud forest near Lake Arenal, white water rafting and biking. Their final destination was the beach and from there they were scheduled to take a plane back to San Jose on 12/31 to fly home.

In light of the accident, Backroads has made some changes – see below:

Einbinder said, "Thank you for your email. I can only imagine how much this has shaken up the Scarsdale community. I'm so sorry for the community's loss. They sounded like a lovely and very well-known family.

Because of the open investigation, I can't answer many of the questions you've asked, but you can get some information from our trip information pages.

As a precautionary measure, until we have more information about the cause of the accident, we have cancelled all of our upcoming flights with Nature Air. Alternate flight arrangements are being made with Sansa, a respected Costa Rican carrier. We are giving our guests the option, based on their preference, to opt for land transfer versus air carrier. We will organize land transfers instead of flights."

A memorial service for Bruce, Irene, Zachary, William and Matthew Steinberg will be held at Westchester Reform Temple on Mamaroneck Road at 2 pm on Sunday January 7th.

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hagerman and orchestra students10 copyOn a frigid night with few members of the public present, Scarsdale's Board of Education's first meeting of 2018 focused largely on money matters, beginning with the district's position on prepayment of taxes and a discussion of the importance of demographic data, followed by promotion of the upcoming district bond vote and a primer on the 2018-19 budget process.

Board President Bill Natbony opened the session by addressing the board's position with regard to prepayment of 2018 school taxes. "The result of the consistent and unambiguous research and advice, and consistent with our fellow school districts that have a July 1 to June 30 budget... was that the board and district lacked the lawful authority, without a community vote with proper notice, to do what is called 'issuing a warrant' or assessment of 2018-19 taxes before the end of last year," he stated. "This was not a result dictated by choice or lack of effort, it was one mandated by law... I hope the community understands that we sympathize and empathize with the impact and unfortunate nature of the tax legislation that we have been compelled to deal with." He also reiterated that Scarsdale Village government was able to issue tax warrants because it is not subject to the same legal requirements as the school district.

Natbony followed up with a reminder about the board's decision to send the much-discussed district bond proposal to voters on February 8. "The bond presents a significant opportunity to invest in the long-term safety, security and infrastructure of all our schools, and an important and overdue renovation of the Greenacres school," he said. Natbony's comments are part of the board's push to communicate the benefits of the bond, which include meetings with residents at upcoming community events and a new "bond website" containing detailed information about the measure.

Natbony concluded his remarks by discussing the recent horrific loss of the Steinberg family. "Above all the issues, discussions, agreements, debates and disagreements... we continue to (value) our importance sense of community and friendship, and recognize the importance of family and volunteerism. The Steinberg family epitomized these important community values and they will be deeply missed."

Superintendent Thomas Hagerman continued the meeting by reviewing district communication policies in light of recent events – the Steinberg tragedy and school closures.

"When we learn about a traumatic event... we work with the affected family to see how we can support them... (and) adhere to the family's wishes with regard to these matters. Moreover, we also assess the students and staff who may be impacted by distressing news and we try to craft appropriate communiqués to these targeted audiences." He continued, "We use the filter of only sharing information about our current students, or something that has a truly exceptional and profound effect on our community, such as what we experienced last week." 
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Hagerman then switched gears and reviewed the processes involved in determining school delays and closures during inclement weather. Decisions are made after discussions with other local superintendents, and assessment of road conditions with the heads of school facilities and transportation, and local police and fire departments. In cases of a delayed start or school closure, the determination typically is made by 5:30 am; for an early dismissal, it is made by 9:30 am. Further, cancelations of after-school activities (for both students and adults) usually are decided by 1:00 pm.

District Demographics

As the district prepares for coming budget discussions, it is important to look at Scarsdale demographic projections in assessing near- and long-term needs. Assistant Superintendent for Personnel and Admin Services Drew Patrick reviewed the district's "Enrollment Report and Demographic Study," which predicts school enrollment trends over the next 10 years.

Patrick reported that Scarsdale is in an "unusually stable" period of enrollment, with little change projected over the next 10 years. In fact, over the next five years, enrollment is projected to vary by an average of just -0.1 percent (or -7 students per year); from 2023 to 2027, enrollment is expected to drop by the same percentage (or -2 students per year). The numbers are driven primarily by housing stability and turnover, with elementary classes impacted more than middle school and high school sections. Total enrollment, of course, determines instructional requirements (primarily teachers), a major component of the district's budget.

The report summarizes both the district demographer's projections and the administration's "currently attending" approach to predict future enrollment, which have yielded the same general trends. However, the demographer's work is sensitive to long-term patterns and statistics, while the "currently attending" approach is based on actual student count.

Board Vice President Scott Silberfein questioned how the district is using the demographer's data, whether it was reliable and if it was necessary to have the demographer perform the analysis every year. Superintendent Hagerman responded, ""It's not just the students... it's also the longer look at the trends and how reliable those are such that, if there are changes in the future, we can say with some reliability we believe that this is going to happen and we need to prepare for it budgetarily, operationally, educationally..." Silberfein, still concerned about reliability of the data, asked, "Are we looking back and (seeing) how the projections have informed us, and have been accurate or inaccurate?" Hagerman followed up by stating, "With the new tax plan that's being released... it probably doesn't make sense for us to stop looking at trend data at this moment until we have a better sense of how that's going to get implemented, how its going to affect daily lives of (residents) and whether that's going to have any implications for housing market issues." 

2014 Bond Project Update/Communicating 2018 Bond

Assistant Superintendent for Business and Facilities Stuart Mattey followed by presenting a status report on the construction projects that were funded by the 2014 bond, some of which have been completed and others that will be completed by the start of the new school year in September.

At Edgewood Elementary, the library project is still under construction, with an estimated completion date in August. Heathcote Elementary's multipurpose room is still incomplete, but should be finished during this coming summer as well. The middle school's orchestra room has been completed and currently is being used by students; and, the three major projects at the high school – the fitness center, design lab and learning commons already are in use or will be shortly. The fitness center is open; the learning commons will open this week; and, the design lab will open to students next month.

Mattey also reviewed the district's communications efforts related to the upcoming bond referendum, scheduled for February 8. Public outreach began with the distribution of a bond newsletter over winter break and release of an updated website that summarized bond information for residents. Board members and district administrators also will meet with residents during some 15 to 20 school and community events in the coming weeks to review "what the bond means for each facility, what it means for residents and its financial implications," according to Mattey.

Gearing Up For 2018 Budget Process

The beginning of the new calendar year also means renewed focus on the district's budget process. Mattey discussed the 2018-19 budget parameters and timeline, while releasing preliminary data, laying the foundation for future discussion. He reminded attendees that the key budget components are educational programs, capital and administration, and are affected by a number of factors, but most significantly, by projected enrollment, projected staffing needs, projected contractual obligations, historical spending patterns, state aid and other non-tax revenue, fund balance/reserves, and the property tax levy limit.2018-19 Budget Chart 110 copy

As is usually the case, contractual increases in salaries for district staff and employee benefits are the main components of the draft budget (chart 1). The total draft budget is $157,423,353, which represents a 2.43 percent increase over last year, below the projected tax levy limit of 3.31 percent (chart 2). Mattey noted that, "We are below the cap, but higher than we have been in recent memory. We're about $616,000 below the tax levy limit."

Natbony then began a discussion on how the upcoming bond referendum will impact the budget process, by confirming that some facilities projects (such as mold and asbestos testing) will be included in the operating budget, as opposed to being covered by the bond. "If, for some reason, we're not able to use the bond money for these projects that we know we're going to have to do over the next few years... they're going to have to be in an operating budget somewhere, as opposed to in the bond, where we know where getting low interest rates over a number of years in hopefully a tax-neutral way."2018-19 Budget Chart 28 copy

Board Member Nina Cannon then stated, "The tax burden in Scarsdale is significant and homeowners are feeling the impact of the (tax code) changes... I hope we going to be mindful of that as we go through this process. I think that what moves us as trustees is to consider not only our standards in terms of education, which is obviously paramount, but also the concerns of the residents who are paying dearly to live here and send their children to school here."

Natbony countered by saying, "That's why I think the upcoming bond is so important... (It) assumes that there' going to be a $65 million pot of money over years that we'll be able to spend to do things that we know we're going to have to do." He continued, "We have to be conscious of an increased community burden... We should keep the number as low as we can without harming the core values that we want to be there and, hopefully, enhancing them to some degree."

Board Member Art Rublin followed by saying, "I think we all agree that we have to be very cognizant of the taxpayers in the community and the new legislation... The numbers we see here, in historical context for Scarsdale, I think, are relatively low. That should be noted. There were years with a... nine or ten (percent increase)..."

District budget planning sessions will take place throughout February and March, with a budget forum scheduled for March 19. The board expects to adopt the budget on April 16 and the public budget vote is set for May 15.

During the last portion of the meeting, the board dealt with several issues, including voting to approve the Westchester County contract for electronic voting machines and related services to be used for the upcoming bond referendum. The panel also discussed a request for new digital and print textbooks for Spanish 324, at a cost for $14,000; a decision was postponed pending additional information and review.

The meeting concluded with no comments from members of the public who were present.

* * *

SMS Orchestra Room Ribbon Cutting

On Tuesday, the district celebrated completion of Scarsdale Middle School's new orchestra room with congratulations and thanks, a performance by the school's Sinfonietta Strings ensemble and a ribbon cutting ceremony. 

Prior to having access to their own space, middle school orchestra students used to attend class and practice on the auditorium stage. The new room provides much needed storage space and greater capacity to learn and perform. Scarsdale Middle School Principal Meghan Troy said, "The space has transformed the learning for our students. It has provided a consistent learning experience each and every day that goes uninterrupted and is focused." She continued, "We feel very fortunate to work in a district that places such a tremendous value on music and the arts."

After Principal Troy's comments, students in the school's Sinfonietta Strings group performed the first and second movements (abridged) from Johan Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. Sinfonietta Strings provides the opportunity for seventh and eighth graders to perform advanced repertoire in a chamber ensemble under the direction of orchestra teacher, Rachel Han.SMS ribbon cutting9 copy

Superintendent Thomas Hagerman followed the performance by saying, "This room becomes magic when it's filled with music." He continued by recognizing past and current board of education members involved in the project, the 2014 bond steering committee, district staff members, and PTA members and leadership for their roles in bringing the project to fruition. He concluded his remarks with, "This is a gift primarily for our students. A place where they get to learn skills and learn a passion around music that will, no doubt, last a lifetime."

Assistant Superintendent Stuart Mattey then expressed thanks to those who built the space safely and efficiently, including the architectural team, construction personnel and district facilities staff. Board of Education President Bill Natbony followed by stating, "As a graduate of the High School of Performing Arts in New York City, I deeply understand the importance of music and the arts in schools. This is a fabulous new space that will, and already has, enhanced the ability to fill these halls with music and to serve as an important part of our arts program." He continued to thank all involved in making the new orchestra room a reality, particularly the Scarsdale community. "I want to give a special shout out to our community for always being there for this school district and understanding that the schools are really the most important asset in our community... When we invest in our schools, we invest in our kids and we invest in our community."

The celebration ended with an official ribbon cutting by Natbony, former Board of Education President Suzanne Seiden and Board Member Leila Maude.

Laura Halligan, a new contributor to scarsdale10583.com, is a local writer, editor and marketing consultant. She is principal of Pinch Hit Prose and provides communications services to entrepreneurs, small businesses and nonprofits.

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clockAs time winds down for resolution of the issue surrounding prepayment of 2018 property taxes to decrease next year's tax burden, here's the latest information from the school board and the IRS.

School Board President William Natbony and Vice President Scott Silberfein responded to angry residents who called for the district to permit the collection of 2018 school taxes, without a warrant. They asked the district to simply collect estimated payments before year-end and reconcile the difference in paid vs. actual after the school budget for next year is passed. However, Natbony and Silberfein explained why they were unable to comply. See the full explanation below.

Also, today's New York Times alerts readers to an advisory notice posted on the Internal Revenue Service website that says, "To qualify for the deduction, property taxes not only need to be paid in 2017, they must also be assessed in 2017 — meaning that homeowners who prepaid their taxes based on estimated assessments, or who tried to pay several years' worth of taxes at once, will probably be out of luck."

If this advisory holds up, it will mean that none of the prepaid local property taxes will be deductible from 2018 tax returns.

See more below:

Letter from School Board President William Natbony and VP Scott Silberfein:

The Board of Education has received many emails in response to our communication today concerning the School District's legal inability to issue a warrant relating to 2018-2019 school taxes. We do understand the frustration expressed in these emails. We share your frustration. However, our legal inability to issue a warrant is not the result of inaction or choice, but based on consistent advice and information carefully reviewed, including advice from the District's outside counsel. That advice is consistent with the advice we know other School Districts have received. We are not aware of any School District that is planning to issue a warrant now for 2018-19 school taxes. Our best information and continued received advice is that we cannot issue a warrant for 2018-19 school taxes because the budget process for that budget cycle has not occurred and the budget has not been approved, after proper notice is provided to the community, by community vote as required by law before a warrant can issue.

A number of emails have suggested that other Villages, Municipalities and School Districts are allowing for prepayment. Again, we are not aware of any School District that is issuing a warrant now for 2018-19 school taxes. There are a number of Districts where prepayment of 2017-18 school taxes (where a portion is due in early 2018) is being permitted. Those circumstances involve assessments and warrants that were previously issued and approved for the 2017-18 tax year in accordance with State law. In Scarsdale, we do not have that payment schedule and all 2017-18 school taxes are payable in 2017. To the extent some Villages and Municipalities are allowing for prepayment of some taxes, I note that Villages and Municipalities are not subject to the same budgetary process and procedural requirements before issuing a warrant as New York non-City, public school districts.

Other emails have inquired about prior communications and messages from the Village (not the School District) regarding prepayment. It is the School District's understanding that a prepayment opportunity for school taxes was offered based on the best information available to the Village at the time in order to allow Scarsdale residents time to consider the benefits of prepayment and as much time this week to commence payment. We understand the Village only collected the money to hold and has not deposited any checks. All of this was done with the understanding that the three taxing jurisdictions (County, Village and School District) would ultimately decide if they are legally permitted and wish to move forward with this apparent opportunity based on their independent reviews relative to the Executive Order and the applicable statutory requirements which are different for all three.

Relevant here, the Governor's Executive Order did not suspend any of the legal requirements concerning the budgetary process and community vote applicable to the School District and, in any event, did not specifically authorize prepayment of 2018-19 school taxes. The Executive Order does not allow for the prepayment of school taxes for the 2018-2019 school year (July 1, 2018 through June 30, 2019). Unlike villages, towns and counties, a school district fiscal year runs from July 1st to June 30th. Further, in accordance with New York Law, prior to the collection of taxes, school districts are required to construct a school budget, seek approval of the budget by its voters, and finalize the tax warrant, where applicable, or set the tax levy. Boards of Education will not be considering final approval of those budgets until March and/or April of 2018. Pursuant to New York State Education Law, required taxpayer voter approval of these budgets will not occur until the third Tuesday in May, as fixed by statute. The Executive Order does not modify or suspend any of these Education Law requirements for the adoption of a school budget. Likewise, the Order does not suspend any provision of Article 13 of the Real Property Tax Law which governs the levy of property taxes for most school districts. Before the local assessing jurisdiction issues the tax warrant to collect taxes for 2018-19 school year, the law requires that the school budget be approved by the voters. Accordingly, the Order does not provide any legal authority for school districts to now adopt estimated 2018-2019 budgets and/or set tax levies for the 2018-2019 school year, nor to authorize the collection of taxes corresponding to those levies.

A number of emails from community members have expressed anger, disappointment and some harsh words about the School District's and Board's position. Some community members have gone so far as to accuse the School District and Board of not caring about Scarsdale's residents or to threaten voting "no" on the upcoming bond proposal and 2018-19 budget unless there is a "change of mind" on this issue.

We hope that the community understands that the School District's conclusion has been reached in good faith and that the School District and Board want to do what is legally possible to provide the opportunity to taxpayers to prepay the 2018-19 school taxes. Unfortunately, our advisors, consistent with other opinions and analyses reviewed, continue to conclude and advise that the School District and the Board, as fiduciaries, cannot legally issue a warrant at this time for the 2018-19 school taxes. We will continue to work hard and inquire about creative or alternative options to enable us to issue the warrant.

IRS Advisory on Deductibility of Prepaid Taxes

The New York Times article concerning deductions for prepaid property taxes warns that they may not be permitted by the IRS. 

Even though Governor Cuomo signed an executive order authorizing municipalities to collect prepayments, the IRS could bar filers from making these deductions.

Why? The article says, "In an advisory notice posted to its website on Wednesday, the I.R.S. said that maneuver could work, but only under limited circumstances. To qualify for the deduction, property taxes not only need to be paid in 2017, they must also be assessed in 2017 — meaning that homeowners who prepaid their taxes based on estimated assessments, or who tried to pay several years' worth of taxes at once, will probably be out of luck."

However, the article states, "The I.R.S. guidance is advice to taxpayers and tax preparers, not a legal ruling. And the agency did not define what it means for a tax to be "assessed." Read more here

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