Democrat Photo by Dan Hust
POINTING IT OUT: Architect Mark Lippi of the Hillier Group, which is designing the proposed Sullivan West high school, illustrates a facet of the design to interested residents at Delaware Valleys recent open house informational meeting in Callicoon.
Sullivan West Building Vote
Coming June 22
By Dan Hust
SULLIVAN COUNTY June 16, 2000 -- What may very well be the last major hurdle in the merger of the Sullivan West Central School District is coming up for a vote this Thursday, June 22.
And its anyones guess how SWs $50 million building/renovations proposal will fare.
Despite monthly newsletters, sometimes multi-weekly public meetings, numerous announcements and advertising campaigns, there are still murmers of discontent with the proposal especially in the former Jeffersonville-Youngsville and Delaware Valley school districts, and to a far lesser degree in Narrowsburg.
School officials and pro-merger residents themselves are unsure what the outcome of the vote will be, agreeing with anti-merger advocates only that it probably will be close in DV and Jeff. (Narrowsburg voters have repeatedly demonstrated an overwhelming support for any merger-related propositions.)
Voters will be asked Thursday to approve or deny three propositions.
Proposition One has to do with purchasing pre-selected land and building a new $28.7 million 9-12 high school in Lake Huntington off Route 52. It also includes approximately $21 million in renovations to the three existing schools in Jeffersonville, Narrowsburg and Callicoon to bring them up to current standards and outfit them for K-6 use. Jeff will also see renovations to create a centralized 7-8 middle school.
Proposition Two concerns an Olympic-size swimming pool connected to the gymnasium area off the proposed high school.
Proposition Three is about adding 300 more seats to the 600-seat auditorium, which would be the first of its kind in any part of the SW district.
Obviously, the latter two propositions are dependent upon the first being passed, but the building will still be constructed if voters pass Proposition One but do not approve Propositions Two and/or Three.
The total cost for everything is $49,898,453, of which the local share will be $10,336,072 which amounts to a tax impact of 96 cents per thousand of assessed value.
However, thanks to millions in incentive aid, taxes will not rise due to this project for the next four years. For the following 16 years, residents would help pay off the remaining debt. Officials estimated someone with a $75,000 (assessed) home would pay about $72 more a year in taxes for the new high school and renovations, an additional $21.15 a year for the swimming pool, and a further $6.23 for the 300 extra seats in the auditorium.
These numbers, of course, do not reflect any reduction in taxes that may be caused by the STAR Program, which state officials are saying could result in an average decrease of $30,000 in assessed value per property owner next year.
High School Concerns
The renovations aspect of the plan has received little complaint from any camp, presumably because all three schools especially Narrowsburg and DV clearly could use renovating, and the state has promised 95 percent aid to fund those renovations.
But over the past few months, numerous concerns have been raised over issues with the 134,000-square-foot high school proposal the most sensitive being the widespread public perception that the high school project would cost taxpayers little to nothing due to 95 percent building aid coupled with several million dollars in merger incentive aid.
That didnt pan out as many expected, and school officials found themselves scrambling to regain the publics trust in what was perceived to be blatant lying on their part.
Heres what SW Superintendent Michael Johndrow said in response to such accusations during an interview Wednesday:
We certainly dont have anything to hide. It is still 95 percent aid on everything that is aidable: classrooms, laboratories, etc.
But, he said, the state calculates aid based on teaching stations, not on actual rooms. Thus, since hallways are not areas where classes could be held, they are not aidable by the state. To use another example, the proposed 10,000-square-foot gym can hold two classes simultaneously therefore, the gym, though bigger and more complex than the average classroom, gets the exact same amount of aid as two classrooms would receive.
In the end, said Johndrow, that averages out to roughly 69 percent of the construction and outfitting of the high school being covered by the state. And though renovations to the other schools will be virtually totally covered by state aid, the high school aid issue combined with the renovations averages out to an 80-83 percent aid coverage by the state on the entire construction and renovations project (depending, of course, on whether or not voters approve the extra auditorium seats and the swimming pool).
Though Johndrow maintains that there was no deliberate misleading of the public on this issue, this does not sit well with many residents, including one of the most outspoken: Tony Wayne of Fremont Center.
It does not compute, he said during an interview on Tuesday. I feel we were cheated.
Wayne, a 1966 graduate of DV who has several children in that school, is the head of the Committee for Information, a group of people mostly in the Town of Fremont area who remain unconvinced about the efficacy of a new high school and the validity of information put out by school officials.
Though he has cooperated with longtime DV critic Noel van Swol of Long Eddy on certain school issues, he denies being Noel van Swols man.
We dont always see eye to eye, he said of van Swol. I know Noel. We talk, but hes not running me.
Wayne, who opposed the merger last year, said it was the merger vote which spurred him to continue fighting when most others including the large amount of people Wayne says continue to agree with him fell silent after it passed in the DV district.
Wayne alleged massive voter fraud last year (which the state education department denied) in a vote all sides agreed was conducted with few safeguards.
(This years vote, according to District Clerk Peg Luty, will be held similar to a general election with voter registration and will include mostly the same safeguards and an extra one or two unique to education votes.)
But his concerns now are about the cost of the project, especially the second most-heard complaint in the SW district: the jump from $30 million (as quoted in the original merger study) to nearly $50 million for the entire projects cost.
Your school officials arent construction people, he said, citing his own background of 10 years as a construction worker. The figures dont back what theyre saying.
Indeed they do, responded Johndrow.
Theres inflation, the fact that every school in the area is doing a project [resulting in less competitive bidding], there was no auditorium in the original study and no provision for incidental costs, and construction costs have risen since the merger study was done three years ago, he listed.
As an example, he explained that the study showed a per-square-foot construction cost of around $120, whereas Turner Construction Company which would build the high school is estimating $145.
That, however, is an ultra-conservative figure, said Johndrow, and construction officials are saying it wont come in overbid. (He then referenced a Buffalo building project which came in at $132 per square foot.)
In fact, bids cant come in higher than that $145 figure, else the school risks going beyond the $28 million figure residents are voting on which would be illegal to exceed.
Johndrow added that there is also the possibility that the aid could be better once the high school is on the blueprints, since various modifications would have to be made to the project even after it was approved. (According to school officials, board members, and architect Mark Lippi of the Scranton, Pa.-based Hillier Group, voters are approving the square footage and cost of the high school project not the exact design.)
Coming Tuesday: A Look at Other Issues, Such as Transportation, the High School Site, Space Utilization at the Existing Schools, the Vote Itself, and Alternative Plans.