How High to Go? School Board Debates $51.1 Million Bond

by Joan R. Simon

(November 29, 2007) Less than a month ago, the Mamaroneck school’s building committee presented a daunting “to do” list of capital improvements to keep the six schools in the district up and running (see: School Board Mulls Multimillion Dollar Capital Plan). Items for inclusion in a possible bond ranged from a new boiler and HVAC system at the Hommocks ($11 million) to exterior building preservation at all six schools ($5.1 million). Other than a new connecting corridor at Mamaroneck Avenue School (see below), the items were only about repairing, refurbishing and replacing.

The price tag of $51.1 million, however, seemed too high to most school board members when the list was presented again at a study session on November 27. Trustee Rick Marsico, the school board liaison to the building committee, also itemized a “top 10” and “top 20” list which the school board had requested from the committee. The top two items on the list were the boilers at Central and the Hommocks, which are beyond their life expectancy and would be very costly, not to mention inconvenient, to replace in an emergency situation. Other items among the top twenty priorities included roof repairs at several schools, new windows at the Hommocks, some of the recommended bathroom renovations (which were yet to be determined), fire door replacements that are mandated, new fire alarm systems for Murray and the Hommocks, and most of the exterior building and site work.

Not included in the pared-down plan were electrical upgrading in all six schools (to eliminate the maze of extension cords found in most classrooms), non-mandated replacement of fire-rated doors, work on other bathrooms, and most of the interior renovations and plumbing work.

The cost of the bond to fund the top 20 prioritized items would be around $35 million. Trustee Michael Jacobson pointed out that the fields project (to be discussed further at a December 4 study session) could add another $5 to $7 million to the bond, depending on which plan is chosen.

Paying for Energy Saving Items Outside of a Bond?

When the capital plan was first presented to the board in early November, the building committee expressed hope that $22.6 million of energy-related improvements could be paid for outside of a bond by going through an ESCO (an energy savings company). This would have lowered the overall bond cost and been a more politically palatable route. However, this option is now viewed as unlikely to work, as explained by Celia Felsher, a current member of the building committee and former president of the school board. She said, “Many of our energy items would have relatively little” cost savings and thus would not qualify for ESCO financing, including the two boilers, new windows and roof repairs.

The largest energy-cost saving, as determined by the ESCO the school consulted, would come from changing light bulbs throughout the school district. This, however, is not part of the $50+ million capital plan, and while it might well be worth doing, Ms. Felsher explained that it would not reduce the price tag of the bond.

Ms. Felsher pointed out that LAN Associates, the school’s architectural and engineering firm, “could do the same cost analysis and show savings” as an ESCO. “But the bond would have to include the whole cost,” and the savings would be seen in the operating budget. “The net is the same to the tax payer,” she said, “but a larger bond would have to be approved.”

To Build or Not? Connecting Corridor at Mamaroneck Avenue School

An elevator and corridor to connect the two older buildings at Mamaroneck Avenue School is part of the $51 million capital plan, although not among the top 20 priority items. It was one element of the architectural plans for the school included in a 2001 capital bond, but higher than expected construction costs for a new wing precluded implementation of this phase of the design. There was a question as to whether New York State would require the district to complete the corridor as part of the current bond. Superintendent for Operations Meryl Rubinstein reported to the board that “we have not been directed by the SED [State Education Department]” to build the connector and suggested that we “continue with what the board feels is best.”

Mr. Marsico explained that the 4-story connector project would net four classrooms and a multi-purpose room. He observed that the school’s population is growing and more classrooms will be needed next year. Ms. Felsher noted that Central is the district’s only fully accessible elementary school. “There is a justification in the district for having a second accessible school” at Mamaroneck Avenue, she said.

Community “Shocked by the Number”?

Among the trustees, only Vice President Linnet Tse had received feedback on a possible $50+ million bond -- and it was negative. “Everyone has been shocked by the number,” she said. “You need to be brave,” urged longtime building committee member Brad Stein as he encouraged the board to implement all the recommended capital improvements. However, most of the board members were cautious. “As brave as I’d like to be,” Trustee Michael Jacobson said, “I don’t think we can get it passed, plus the fields, plus” state mandated increases in the operating budget (related to upcoming rises in the state pension plan).

Mr. Marsico pointed out that construction costs rise by 10% each year, and said,“We’ve spent two years going over every item on the list.” Mr. Jacobson agreed that everything “desperately needs to be done” and “not to do it is short-sighted,” but added that his thinking “changed a lot last year,” when the budget was defeated. “The raw size of the school budget has an impact on people.” Ms. Tse agreed: “We have been hearing for a number of years” about the budget being too high. Board President Amy Levere was the only one to support the larger bond. “We have to have trust in the community” to support us, she said.

Some State and Private Assistance Expected

Ms. Rubinstein explained that some of the bond’s cost would be offset by state aid. $1.5 million would be covered by “Excel aid” from the state. More significantly, state building aid would cover 23.7% of qualifying items, which she anticipated would be about 90% of the bond. That would mean approximately 21% of the bond’s cost would be refunded by the state.

If a fields plan is included in the bond, Ms Rubinstein explained, “you will get little to no [state] aid on fields,” which are considered site work. However, she was hopeful that there might be some eligibility if the fields can be presented “as a gym station.” In addition, $250,000 has been promised by the State Legislature through Assemblyman George Latimer for the field renovations, and Fields for Kids has offered to secure private donations.