Column by Ken Cohen
Did you know that Sullivan West is the only district in Sullivan County that does not have a baseball/softball field on its school grounds? Hard to believe that a relatively new, $40 million high school has only one useable athletic field.
Voters in the District have the opportunity to change that next Tuesday by voting for a public referendum authorizing the use of $2.7 million from the Capital Reserve Fund to complete and construct athletic playing fields at both the elementary and high school as well as replacing the 1961 roof. As a parent, community member, school board member, sports fan and education advocate, I support this referendum and here’s why:
Back in 2007, myself and two other candidates were elected to the Sullivan West School Board with a clear mandate from the public to do what we could to finish the athletic fields at the high school. It was part of our platform and was widely embraced by the voters. In 2009, the Board laid the groundwork for any future field improvements by asking the voters to approve a Capital Reserve Fund, which they did overwhelmingly. While we held meetings and began the design process, there was simply no financial means available to make it happen.
Then, in 2011, the District settled various lawsuits against contractors and builders of the high school, adding roughly $6 million to the Capital Reserve Fund. In my mind, this is the money that was originally approved by the voters to be used for the construction and completion of the high school. Because there were problems, it never was. The District has finally recouped the money through these lawsuit settlements. Completion of the high school and true execution of the merger vote will only come with completion of the athletic fields.
In March 2012, a referendum presented to the voters to spend $5 million from the Capital Reserve Fund to build new fields was soundly defeated. The feedback from the community was the amount was too much to spend at once and there were other building repairs that should be included. There was also some confusion that it would be adding to the tax levy which was absolutely incorrect. No additional taxpayer money was at stake.
The Sullivan West School Board listened to its constituents and is now presenting a scaled down $2.7 million referendum phasing in construction of the fields over time and also incorporating other building maintenance.
There are still those who think voting for the referendum will increase their taxes. Again, there are no additional taxes in play here. All of the money would come from the Capital Reserve Fund. There are others who wonder why we are not spending the money on an educational purpose, returning it to the taxpayers or letting it sit and earn interest.
Firstly, a capital reserve fund can only be used for a capital project. It cannot be used for any other purpose and cannot go back into the general fund until the reserve fund expires, which in this case, would be eight years from today. To apply it to the tax levy at that point would be impractical yes it will result in a substantial tax levy decrease that year, but the next year we would have to absorb tax increases of 20% or more.
Secondly, sports serve an important educational purpose. It teaches leadership, discipline, teamwork, communication, perseverance, decision-making all essential life skills. In order to enhance the athletic component of the educational experience at Sullivan West, we need the fields to do so.
Finally, the cost of transporting students from the high school to various facilities for athletic practices everyday is costing the District approximately $25,000 per year. That will more than wipe out any interest gained from the money sitting in the reserve fund.
I like to think of this money in the capital reserve fund as a gift card someone would receive for Home Depot. The value on the card can only be used to purchase items at Home Depot within a specified time period. You cannot receive cash for the card to spend it somewhere else.
In reality, Sullivan West received a $6 million capital project gift card when the lawsuits were settled. The money can only be spent on a capital improvement/construction project, which The Board of Education proposes should be on finishing and constructing athletic fields. It cannot be allocated to anything else. Let’s redeem this card it’s a gift!. Every day we wait, the cost of the project goes up.
Editor’s Note Ken Cohen is a member of the Sullivan West School Board. His opinions do not necessarily represent those of the School Board or the Sullivan West district.