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To Build or Not to Build Part 2

Editor’s Note: This article is the second of a two-part story about the upcoming Sullivan West construction and renovations proposal. The first half appeared in last Friday’s edition.

By Dan Hust

SULLIVAN COUNTY — June 20, 2000 -- Residents, board members, administrators, indeed the entire Sullivan West Central School District are gearing up for Thursday’s noon-9 p.m. vote on whether or not to go through with a $49.9 million building/renovations project.
Those for the proposal fear what may happen if it does not pass. Those against it equally fear what may happen if it does. And much of the disagreement and concerns center around several key points.
Excess Costs
Two of those points are transportation and operation/maintenance of the proposed 9-12 high school in Lake Huntington, the costs of which Tony Wayne of Fremont Center, the head of a group opposed to the current building proposal, says will be astronomical.
Wayne said Turner Construction Company officials, who will build the high school if it is approved, quoted an annual operations cost of about $600,000. He figures it to be closer to $2 million, based on the current operating figures for Delaware Valley, Jeff-Youngsville and Narrowsburg’s buildings.
“Because we are renovating all the existing schools, you shouldn’t have anywhere near the maintenance cost you have now,” responded Callicoon resident Jerry Smith, a pro-building proposal advocate who helped draft the original merger study. “And when you put all the middle school kids in Jeff, you’ll see a savings from that.”
But Wayne also anticipates increasing costs in transportation, since buses will have to transport nearly 2,000 students in a 200-square-mile district from their homes to pre-K-6 schools in Narrowsburg and Callicoon, pre-K-8 in Jeffersonville and 9-12 in Lake Huntington.
Jeff, he added, uses Milton Gaebel buses, for which the costs are higher than DV and Narrowsburg’s in-house fleets.
In response to Wayne’s concerns, Sullivan West Superintendent Michael Johndrow agrees with Smith that, according to figures business manager Betsy McKean has determined, the savings gained from more efficiencies in the existing schools will mostly offset the operating/maintenance costs of the new school. Regarding transportation, Johndrow feels double busing (though there is no guarantee that is what the board will choose to do) will result in savings, since fewer drivers will be driving longer routes and will be operating buses more often, rather than letting them sit and rust the majority of the time.
However, said Johndrow, “I don’t have hard figures because we’re not there yet. Certainly it’s going to be a little more, but not that much more [than at present].”
Wayne, though, is certain that, if Sullivan West must remain a merged district (he and others are fighting the merger itself, too), a centralized pre-K-12 facility is the way to go.
“A lot of people who were against [the current proposal] would go for one building,” he explained. “You’d save millions on transportation.”
He argued that a DV student could easily get to J-Y by transferring from a DV bus to Jeff’s where they meet in North Branch. Failing that, he said BOCES runs a bus regularly through Sullivan West.
Wayne added that the one-school idea (with three wings for pre-K-6, 7-8 and 9-12) would cut costs in other areas, such as sports, and would ideally be located somewhere in the Beechwoods section between Hortonville and Jeff.
He’d advocate giving the three existing buildings away to interested parties (“it would be quicker than selling it”) in exchange for the promise that the properties would be put on the tax rolls.
“DV would make a good nursing home,” he pointed out.
The High School Site
Questions have also arisen regarding the siting of the new high school, with some saying there is the possibility of toxic trash buried in the ground and that the Lake Huntington sewer system cannot meet the long-term demands of a high school.
On both counts, Johndrow said those people are mistaken.
“As far as I know, the SEQRA [an acronym for a state environmental review] is complete,” he commented. “We received a negative declaration [meaning no significant environmental concerns were noted]. We have no concerns whatsoever [about the site].”
He added that the remains of the Green Acres Hotel, which were bulldozed over after a fire decades ago, are not even on school property.
“They’re a good 250 yards away,” he said.
(Former Green Acres owner Esterita Blumberg of Liberty added that she highly doubts the violent fire would have left any dangerous materials in the ground.)
Additionally, Town of Cochecton officials have signed off on the school’s use of the local sewer system, Johndrow said.
Space Needs
But what about the other schools? Why can’t they be renovated as pre-K-12, rather than the proposed plan of pre-K-6 (up to eighth grade in Jeff)? Or why can’t Jeff, with its six-year-old building, be made the new high school?
Though Wayne is in favor of a centralized pre-K-12 facility, these are questions he and others have repeatedly brought up.
Said Johndrow, “We’d have to add on at least 30-35 more rooms [at J-Y]. The cafeteria would have to be expanded. And if you built a new high school at Jeff, the aid would still be the same.”
Besides the issue of little expansion room at DV and Narrowsburg and the need to acquire additional land if J-Y were expanded, Johndrow remarked that “DV’s classes are in the cellar. We have to get them out of the cellar.
“We’re going to need 2-3 rooms for pre-K,” he continued. “We need room for special education students [due to a state mandate].
“J-Y is full now, and with the middle school, they will still be full.”
The Vote
Voters do not have the option to choose one or the other – construction of a new high school and renovations to the existing schools – in Thursday’s vote. Both are lumped into one proposition – a proposition that has some people nervous, since there’s no specific wording regarding the building project in Lake Huntington.
“It is worded the way our bond counsel advised us to,” said Johndrow, adding that the word “reconstruction” is the legal term for renovations. “And we’re locked into that. If we did any less, we wouldn’t get as much aid and would have to totally rework the numbers. We have to stay in those guidelines.”
Voters must go to their respective election districts’ polling sites (i.e., if you live in the former Narrowsburg school district, that is where you will vote), but simply because the proposal passes or fails in one district does not mean its fate is sealed. The school district will tally up the combined numbers to determine the vote’s outcome.
And school officials are as fervently hoping it will pass as those against the proposal are hoping it will fail.
The reason? Besides a drop of about $2 million in state aid and four percent projected annual inflation, there’s no plan in place if the project is rejected by the majority of district taxpayers.
“We do not have a plan,” acknowledged Johndrow. “[Assistant Superintendent] Dave Rowley and I looked into other plans. Nothing was nearly as advantageous for the taxpayers and the students. It would be less educationally.
“It might sound like a threat,” he added, “but the board honestly feels [this proposal is the best one].”
Regardless, Johndrow hopes everyone who can possibly vote will do so.
And that’s the one thing he and Wayne agree on.
“I want everyone to vote, regardless if it is ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” said Wayne.





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