"Bare Bones" $22.1M School Bond Vote Will Be May 19

by Melany Gray

(March 12, 2009) “While the board members all still agree that each piece of the work proposed in the defeated bond is very important for the district, we also recognize that we simply can’t do everything right now,” said Mamaroneck School Board President Linnet Tse on Tuesday, March 10 at a special meeting in response to the narrow defeat of a $38 million bond referendum last month. (See: Mamaroneck School Bond Narrowly Defeated 49.1 to 50.9%)

In the end, after a final opportunity for community input, the board unanimously voted to accept recommendations from Superintendent Paul Fried for a $22.1 million “bare bones” bond to be presented for a vote on May 19, the same time as the school budget.

All fieldwork and playgrounds are out along with many infrastructure projects. All that remains is replacing antiquated boilers at the Hommocks and Central School, replacing the original HVAC system (pipes, ducts, air handlers and unit ventilators) at Hommocks and a portion of the system at Central, replacing the original single-pane windows at Hommocks (many of which must be removed to access the ductwork, air handlers and piping), and replacing and patching roofs at all schools except Murray and Mamaroneck Avenue (where roofs have already been replaced).

Revised Bond
Hommocks Middle School boiler and HVAC system (replacement)
Central School boiler and HVAC system (partial replacement)
Hommocks windows
Roofs (Central, Chatsworth, Hommocks & MHS)
Getting the Boilers Done

In making his recommendations, Dr. Fried explained his belief that given the economic climate, a conservative bond was needed “to insure the most serious and time sensitive aspects of the work have the greatest chance to be approved by the community.” He added, “I believe that the introduction of fields or playgrounds greatly decreases the chances that the bond will pass.”

Dr. Fried recommended that the vote be in May to prevent further delay of the boiler work, which can only occur when school is not in session. Even with a May vote, given the time needed for approvals, the earliest completion date would be summer of 2010, “after only one more winter.”

There was unanimity on the importance of the boiler work, even from those who had favored a bigger bond and those who had voted against it. Community member Paul Hunt explained his objection to “gilding the fields,” but said, “I don’t think anybody would oppose boilers, windows and roofs.” Field advocates Philippa Wharton and Mac Budill each encouraged the board to defer field work and push ahead for a May vote.

Board members concurred. “Our number one responsibility,” asserted Ms. Tse, “is to ensure that boilers and related work can be completed in the summer of 2010.” Robin Nichinsky agreed; her “first instinct” had been to push for a fall bond, but now it is “too dangerous for us to wait,” she said.

Michael Jacobson, perhaps the board’s strongest fields’ advocate, agreed that a May “bare bones” bond was the way to go, both to garner broad community support and address time critical projects. Further, if the bond was voted down again, the community “will never get fields,” he said.

Only Rick Marsico, the board member who is liaison to the building committee, struggled with the timing and scope of the revised bond, suggesting a bigger bond in September. Ultimately, although visibly pained by the decision, he voted to support the $22.1 million in May, making the board’s decision unanimous.

Why Wouldn’t a Fall Bond Work?

There was still some support for a larger fall bond, including from Amy Levere, the former school board president. However, Assistant Superintendent Meryl Rubinstein explained a fall vote would allow scant time for New York State’s already congested approval process, especially given the large number of “shovel ready” projects seeking speedy review to access federal stimulus funds. The district risks a further delay, until the summer of 2011, to install its boilers.

Scope of the Work – Is All the “Bare Bones” Work Needed?

Before the board voted, they heard from Ken Karle, president of LAN Associates, the architectural and engineering firm that prepared the district’s 2005 five-year plan and will oversee the bond work. (LAN receives a flat fee rather than a percentage of whatever work is ultimately done.)

In response to questions on whether the entire heating and window system must be replaced at the Hommocks, Mr. Karle explained that the 40-year old boilers, HVAC and windows are an integrated system. The pipes and ductwork, some of which are under cement floors or behind built in bookshelves, are clogged and often leak. George McNally, director of facilities, confirmed there had been two leaks over the weekend at Hommocks. Work on the nearly 250,000 square feet of piping is warranted, said Mr. Karle, both to assure delivery of heat and to prevent sludge in the pipes from damaging the new boilers.

What about the Hommocks windows? Replacing them in conjunction with the duct work makes sense, explained Mr. Karle, in part because the pipes are supporting many of the windows. Elsewhere, steel frames on many of the single-pane windows have rusted or rotted away. Doing window and pipe work together enables the district to both purchase smaller, more efficient boilers and deliver better “creature comfort” for people at the Hommocks, said Mr. Karle. Teachers and students have reported they wear coats to keep warm in some classrooms.

Mr. Karle asserted roof work is also a high priority for preservation of buildings. Mr. McNally described roofs at Chatsworth and the high school’s Post Road building as being in the worst shape. They “have the tendency to grow grass and trees,” he said, “We have college kids with weedwackers” on the roofs in the summer to clear the vegetation. There had been a leak at Chatsworth that very day, he reported.

What About the Rest of the Work?

For the future, Dr. Fried recommended the board consider a series of smaller bonds, in the $4-8 million range, every two to three years. These bonds, he suggested, could combine the remaining infrastructure projects with work on fields and playgrounds. Dr. Fried and Ms. Tse explained that schools typically borrow through bonds to finance their long-term capital projects, which would be too expensive to pay for through a single budget.

Dr. Fried and Ms. Rubinstein are optimistic that $250,000 in state funds secured by Assemblyman George Latimer in conjunction with the last bond could be applied to address aging asbestos tiles in the McClain Auditorium. Ms. Rubinstein said the tiles are lifting and, if the situation gets much worse, the auditorium will need to be closed.

Dr. Fried expected the proposed budget for 2009-2010, which he will present on March 17, will include additional capital funds to mitigate some problems originally addressed in the failed bond. Since any field or playground work will be delayed for some time, the district will be exploring intermediate steps “to sustain us until we find more permanent solutions,” he said.

Ms. Tse noted that the district has been holding $500,000 for fieldwork in the capital account, but those monies had been earmarked for the high school fields and cannot be used for other work. These funds were collected as part of the 2004-2005 school budget when the district was planning to move the Kemper Memorial to put in a new field. (See: 2004-2005 School Budget)

Foreshadowing Times to Come?

Dr. Fried has already forecast a budget with reductions in staff of around 50 positions, (See: School Budget Forecast: Class Size, Taxes Up; Staff Size Down) and his outlook has not improved. “As I look ahead, the financial picture for next year may not be any better,” he said on Tuesday. “This is more than a one year problem.”