By Dan Hust
JEFFERSONVILLE October 2, 2001 Theres a new air of uncertainty in the Sullivan West Central School District, and the entire district is holding its breath to see if the promised 95 percent state aid for the renovations to the three existing campuses will come through.
Some residents, increasingly disillusioned by a series of setbacks in the vast merger process, are gravely concerned that district taxpayers could end up footing as much as $6 million extra in renovations work.
School officials, while not sitting on their haunches, are saying that should not be the case and are already in the process of ensuring such.
The source of concern is a group of documents obtained from the state education department by Callicoon resident Arthur Norden, who has repeatedly questioned the school board and administration over financial issues since the 1999 merger.
According to Nordens calculations made from the numbers given to him by the NYS Education Department, Narrowsburgs renovations project to turn it into a K-6 school faces a tenfold increase in the amount taxpayers will be required to pay, while Delaware Valleys similar project faces a sixfold increase over the numbers initially provided to residents prior to the June 2000 referendum in which they approved a $50 million project to build a new high school and renovate the three existing schools.
Jeffersonvilles K-8 renovations were not calculated since the state has yet to assign a pupil capacity rating to the plan and thus has no numbers available.
The culprit here appears to be the building units assigned . . . in terms of classrooms, said Norden, referencing the complex formula used for calculating building aid units (BAUs).
Callicoon resident Ken Uy, another frequent participant in Sullivan West board meetings and issues, agrees thanks to his own extensive calculations. The two mistakes he noted in the initial SW renovations estimates were that, firstly, the calculations were based in part on 7th-12th grade BAUs, which are financially rated differently than K-6th (and DV and Narrowsburg will become K-6th schools); and secondly, that BAUs were significantly overstated therein, which he blames on school officials not measuring the size of classrooms in the two buildings.
Classroom size helps determine BAUs, according to state documents. BAUs, in turn, help define the maximum cost allowances for a project and thus the aid given.
However, Uy is reluctant to say exactly how much taxpayers will be impacted by what he deems a major mistake, since bids have not been awarded and construction contracts have not been signed, so no firm dollar figure for the renovations work is known yet.
Besides, thats not the current problem, in his mind.
The errors in applying building aid formulas [by district officials in the spring of 2000] resulted in an overstatement of maximum cost allowances by $7.2 million for DV and $7.8 million for Narrowsburg, he said yesterday. Without these errors, maximum cost allowances are less than total costs, and 95 percent aid is impossible.
Short of starting over, nothing can be done to mitigate these errors. They are simply too large to offset through revisions or fine-tuning.
School officials, however, arent so sure they cant make a change for the better, claiming that Norden revealed a part of the aid process that is not normally made public for the simple reason that current numbers are not an accurate indication of the final amount of aid due to the school.
Its a process, explained Superintendent Michael Johndrow. We still anticipate it [aid] to be at 95 percent.
Johndrow said that the aid is not final until the project is complete at which time the state determines what will be reimbursed to the district.
So whats the use of estimating? According to Johndrow and the NYS Education Departments Facilities Planning Coordinator, Carl Thurnau, the state has several formulas that can be used to figure out the aid so that voters can have a good idea of what the local share will be of upcoming costs. The district sends those projections up to the state, and the state sends back an estimate of aid.
They come to us with their best guess at that time, said Thurnau. But that is just an estimate. Things do change.
However, Thurnau set the aid finalization bar a little lower than Johndrow, saying, Its not final until the construction contracts are signed, which has yet to be done for SWs renovations.
But what about the current state ed. numbers, which according to Uys calculations show maximum cost allowances that are 53 percent less in DV and 63 percent less in Narrowsburg than what the district calculated last year? According to both Uy and Norden, there is no possible way to keep the current scope of the renovations work and still have it funded by 95 percent state aid.
They [state ed. officials] tell me those figures were based on preliminary information, said BOCES District Superintendent Martin Handler, who presided over much of the pre- and post-merger process at Sullivan West. Those figures are tentative.
And although he said those numbers are likely to change, he did acknowledge, I have not ever seen a difference like the one in this case. Its huge.
State Aid division employee John ODonnell of the state ed. department says somewhere the district made a mistake.
Based on the initial numbers, the maximum cost allowance [what the state deems are appropriate expenditures via a building aid unit formula] is far less than the actual costs, he explained. The problem with Sullivan West is that their capacities didnt generate enough cost allowances to cover all costs.
Of course, he added, calculating aid is not an exact science, although he said that the fiscal advisor, architects and construction workers who came up with the initial figures either didnt keep in mind or werent aware of the rules surrounding building aid calculations.
ODonnell and his staff provided the figures in question to Norden, as ODonnell is responsible for dealing with Sullivan West in the area of state aid.
Thurnau who is not directly involved in the Sullivan West project thinks it may just be a case of a necessary lack of detail in the initial proposal. He postulated that the initial figures were not very detailed prior to the public vote on the proposal, so as to not rack up architectural design costs should the public deny the project.
Its very common for districts to come back to us with a revised proposal, he stated.
And ODonnell figures the board and administration will have to do just that: changing the scope of the renovations work or justifying additional capacities to reach the 95 percent aid goal.
Johndrow said Turner Construction Company, Hillier architects, the state and he are already working on it.
This is a dinger, no question. Were looking at everything, Johndrow explained. I cant say were not looking at cutting back, . . . but were not cutting back on any essentials.
We still fully expect to get 95 percent in the final analysis.
But why isnt that currently the case?
Its been a communications breakdown, I guess, said Johndrow, citing a state ed. department swamped with new projects all requiring a multitude of approvals. It wasnt pleasing to us by any means.
But to make a judgment now on the aid situation is jumping the gun, according to Johndrow.
Maybe so, said Norden, and maybe not.
There certainly are opportunities for the district to revise their proposal, Norden acknowledged. But what this board has to look at is the competence of the unnamed fiscal advisor and the construction company. I would like to see how they can possibly justify . . . the [initial] figures they gave to us.
And, he added, how any new proposal is going to offset what he calculated to be several million dollars in extra costs to taxpayers.
For his part, Uy would like to see a public referendum once the SW board is ready to award bids for the Narrowsburg project later this year. The vote would determine whether or not to move forward with the current bidders in the renovations work.
Gross incompetence has caused the voters to be misled, he said, declining to guess whether it was intentional or not, and I believe that they must have a voice in deciding how to proceed.