By Claire Walla
On December 8, 2009, when the Sag Harbor School District put nearly $7 million worth of building improvements up for bond, the community voted it down.
Now, after two years of discussions, the Long Range Planning Committee has worked to trim the cost of the project by almost $1.8 million, which — coupled with $500,000 worth of energy cost savings built into this year’s operating budget — brings the total down to roughly $4.9 million.
Committee member John Russo and the district’s architect Larry Salvesen presented the updated list of improvement projects at a regularly scheduled school board meeting last Monday, September 26.
“We looked at what failed in 2009 and pared it back by looking at what we could move and what wasn’t essential,” Russo explained.
Most significantly, the committee minimized the Pierson kitchen upgrade, at a savings of $372,360; and removed two parking lots from the list of items needing repair, saving $341,000. About $350,000 was also taken out of the proposal for projects that can either be accomplished in-house, or are not deemed necessary.
What’s more, a $12 million plan to rebuild the Pierson Auditorium has been taken off the docket altogether. Instead of paying for the project with taxpayers’ dollars, the committee recommends securing funding through private donations.
Salvesen explained that many of these improvements are expected to save the district money over time.
With reference to the parking lots in particular, board members emphasized the importance of communicating with the public, largely blaming miscommunication for the bond measure failing in 2009.
“This is entirely for health and safety,” Russo told the board. “The Jermain lot [at Pierson High School], while improved with the striping, is still inadequate for bus traffic and emergency vehicles.”
Though he said the elementary school parking lot next to the Eco-Walk is sufficient, as is the high school parking lot at the front of the school, the lot on Hampton Street at the front of the elementary school is also unsafe in its current state.
School Board President Mary Anne Miller emphasized that adding parking spaces is not the only end-goal.
“It’s not that we’re trying to make them bigger, they really have deteriorated,” she said. “Their structure has diminished.”
As for Pierson’s outdoor facilities, District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto spoke to the importance of refurbishing Pierson High School’s field with synthetic turf and lights. Both measures, he said, would give Pierson athletes more ability to use the facilities for a longer period of time.
According to District Buildings and Grounds Supervisor Montgomery “Monty” Granger, the creation of a turf field would bring his department a significant savings. He currently budgets about $60,000 for field maintenance, he explained; but with a turf field the department would only have to spend about $5,000 a year to keep it intact.
Echoing some of the dissent heard back in 2009, community member Steven Reiner expressed some concerns. As far as the new field proposals go, Reiner said installing turf could be a far more complicated process than expected. However, he continued, “The light option is a far more problematic, and more vigorously opposed by the neighborhood.”
“I would think that a very full environmental report would have to be conducted,” he said, before the school district can bring this to the public for a vote He further explained that there are issues of traffic, access and public safety that need to be addressed.
“Once this becomes a decision that leaves the confines of the school and affects the community, police officers, garbage collectors [etc.] I don’t think it’s a choice one can offer the public lightly, without due diligence.”
“An awful lot of work needs to be done before lights can be considered for this area,” he concluded.
Pierson teacher and girls’ soccer coach Peter Solow suggested that perhaps the committee should consider separating the turf and the lights into two separate bonds, as the lights seem to be more controversial.
“If there was a field [and] a track, I guarantee you it will probably get more use than anything else in this community,” he said. “This is not simply an issue of interscholastic sports. The field can be used by the community on a year-long basis.”
While the school board has yet to tease out the finer details of the committee’s proposal, school board member Sandi Kruel did address concerns she had with the current plans for the Pierson cafeteria expansion.
The new plan, at $166,920, is a fraction of the cost presented two years ago, which topped $500,000. However, though the plan will add 16 seats, expand the kitchen area to include prep space and double storage capabilities, Pierson will still not have a functioning commercial kitchen, meaning cafeteria staff will not be able to cook using a stovetop.
“Unfortunately, to build a code-compliant commercial kitchen, it was an additional $350,000 for all the changes that need to be put in place,” Russo explained.
Kruel continued, “For $166,000, to do this and then not give the chef a fire to cook on… it makes me a little crazy.”
Broadening the scope of the discussion, Dr. Gratto explained that in tough economic times capital projects are often taken off the table when it comes time for school districts to tighten their belts. But, in light of the two-percent tax cap — which will affect all school districts in the state of New York next budget season — Dr. Gratto was sure to inform the crowd that funding for serial bonds would not be factored into such a cap.
The school board will continue to review the committee’s plans and is expected to discuss the project at the next bus