LAKE HUNTINGTON Sullivan West’s board may ask voters to once again weigh in on whether or not to complete the athletic fields at the Lake Huntington high school.
The original $5 million plan to add soccer, baseball, football, tennis, softball and basketball facilities went down in defeat in March, when 421 voters said “no,” compared to a “yes” tally of 265.
Yet at last week’s meeting, board members seemed unanimous in bringing it up for a vote again albeit in a series of piecemeal referenda. The disagreements arose over when to hold the first of what could be three votes spread out over several years.
The board’s Facilities Needs Committee recommended scheduling the first vote for October 2012, but board member Ken Cohen disagreed, advocating for coupling it with the regular May budget vote in order to encourage a larger turnout of voters.
“I think the best chance you have of passing [this] is when you have the most voters voting,” he explained.
Board member Noel van Swol, who is on the Facilities Needs Committee, and Supt. Ken Hilton were more inclined to give the controversial matter a breather, advocating for the October 2012 date.
But board member Angela Daley pointed out that waiting till then meant the athletic fields, if approved, wouldn’t begin to be operational until at least 2014.
“I see no reason to wait another year to get this going,” agreed board member John Reggero.
He and Daley pushed for a vote this coming October, though when it became clear that could not be physically accomplished, they advocated for a November vote.
“I’d rather know now than later,” Daley explained, adding that if it went down, the district could put it on the May ballot (a stance shared by Facilities Needs Committee and board member Joan Glase).
“I think many people would be outraged by such an approach,” cautioned Hilton, who pointed out that van Swol commands a great deal of sway over some district voters.
“If Noel opposes a plan this board puts forward,” he said, “we’re going to have a lot of negative votes.”
Van Swol himself did not argue strenuously against an early vote so much as he firmly stood on keeping the vote for next October.
“The finances of the state are deteriorating,” van Swol explained. “... A lot of people feel this is not the time to rush into this.”
Daley, Glase and board colleague Kathy Meckle, however, thought voters did not fully understand what they were voting on in March a project that came with no borrowing and no tax increase, instead using monies in an existing reserve fund (which had just been boosted by $4 million from a settlement with the high school’s architect).
“This money came to this school for this purpose, to my mind, and we’re just delaying and delaying,” Daley frustratedly observed.
She added that this piecemeal approach promises to be more expensive than what the taxpayers voted down in March, a fact Hilton corroborated.
Nevertheless, the residents Glase hears from say they’re ready to vote again.
“Every person I talk to says they want the fields here,” she relayed.
“Well, they didn’t come out and vote [the first time],” Cohen shot back.
Notably, this new series of projects now includes athletic fields and improvements at the elementary campus in Jeffersonville, in part to encourage more support from voters in the former Jeffersonville-Youngsville district.
“The strongest opposition to our [March] referendum was the J-Y community,” Hilton remarked.
“We’re saying to the public, ‘We heard you we’re going to give you something smaller’,” Glase stated.
There was another reason for adding those items, admitted Hilton: district engineers said some of the work done at the existing Jeff fields by BOCES might not meet state Dept. of Environmental Conservation (DEC) standards.
The district has temporarily rectified the issue, according to Assistant Supt. Lorraine Poston, and is eager to see the BOCES students and teachers continue their work estimating it could save the district upwards of $500,000 but SW has to ensure DEC compliance, Hilton added.
Reggero, however, didn’t want Lake Huntington to be left out if the votes are split into pieces.
“I want to make sure we get fields here sooner rather than later,” he insisted. “Enough already! ... Why make another generation of kids wait?”
Later, he was more frank.
“There’s a certain segment of the greater community who feel that with time and with a declining population, this [Lake Huntington] facility won’t be necessary,” Reggero remarked, adding it would be “a travesty” if the district ended up with just one campus.
“There’s an element of geographic determinism here,” van Swol responded, arguing that the travelling distance to Lake Huntington from the far corners of SW limits the usefulness of the high school to some. “You’re not going to change that even if you put $500 million worth of fields here.”
“Build it and they will come,” replied Glase.
“Uh-huh, sure,” van Swol responded.
Glase insisted the students deserve more opportunities.
“Everything’s lousy for us adults right now,” she said. “Let’s make it better for our kids!”
“They’re getting by,” replied board member Rose Crotty, “and that’s what a lot of people see.”
Crotty, who’s also on the Facilities Needs Committee, was ambivalent about when to hold a vote, but she seemed to be the only one.
“We need a cooling-down period,” urged Poston. “We don’t want the project to go down.”
But the board majority felt an October 2012 vote would continue putting off a project they see as deeply necessary to the students’ educational and emotional future.
So this Wednesday, September 7, the board will meet in a workshop at 7 p.m. in the high school library to discuss a November 2011 vote followed by votes on the subsequent capital projects in October 2012 and October 2013.
Hilton said last week that scheduling a November vote will be a stretch.
“I don’t think we have time to put it together,” he told the Democrat.
The public is invited to attend the workshop, though there is no requirement for the board to accept public comment at that time.
What are the plans?
Here’s what the Sullivan West school board is talking about when it discusses having three separate capital project votes:
• The first one possibly coming as early as this November or as late as next October would be for a $1.735 million project to create softball, baseball and soccer fields at the high school, resurface the existing Jeffersonville track, repair the nature trail at the elementary school, and do an energy audit districtwide.
• The second vote possibly in October 2012 or 2013 would be on a $1.554 million project to repair the high school stadium’s turf with more natural turf (district officials think the artificial turf idea in March turned off some voters), plus prepare the elementary school for new baseball, softball and soccer fields, and address issues with restroom fixtures, a fuel oil tank and the 1994 building’s roof.
• The third vote possibly slated for October 2013 or 2014 would concern a $1.561 million project to complete the new baseball, soccer and softball fields in Jeffersonville, replace exterior/emergency lighting and windows at the elementary school, make the high school stadium handicapped-accessible and address restroom fixture and ventilation issues in Lake Huntington.
Supt. Ken Hilton said that no borrowing or tax increases are involved, and that the district is putting aside half a million dollars a year and using all but $1.5 million of its capital reserve to fund the three projects.
The board, however, has not definitively chosen this path and may add/remove projects and change voting dates.