Schenectady board hopes state money sways voters
$70 million available if middle school conversion OKd
SCHENECTADY If voters say yes, Schenectady will get $70 million from the state to turn its middle schools into small learning communities divided by grade, school officials said.
“That’s the message we have to get out there. This money is ours. All we need is a ‘yes’ vote to get it,” said Robert Hendricks, executive director of Educational Legacy Planning Group.
Hendricks was hired by the school district to lead the design of the new middle schools.
But he’s up against a hurdle: Voters might say no because they don’t want middle schools. Instead of four K-8 schools, the plan calls for three middle schools. Last year, a strong contingent pushed for K-8 schools instead.
That effort appears to have withered as Superintendent Laurence Spring repeatedly presented the middle school plan and argued for that design. But until the vote, no one will know for sure.
School board member Cheryl Nechamen tried to lead off any opposition Wednesday by suggesting that the district could go ahead with middle schools no matter how the public voted.
But Spring said the middle school buildings need so many improvements that the capital project is a necessary part of the process.
Central Park’s K-8 will become a 6-8 building, for example, while the other K-8s will revert to K-5 elementary schools.
The conversion will take four phases, costing a total of $234 million to $239 million. In the end, every school in the district will have significant physical improvements.
But the first phase, at $70 million, is the only one up for a vote right now. The vote will be held March 25.
It calls for huge changes to Oneida and Mont Pleasant middle schools to separate the sixth, seventh and eighth grades into “small learning communities.”
The sixth grade would have its own entrance at Mont Pleasant, and in Oneida, each grade would have its own floor.
The science rooms would also be improved to allow modern science experiments.
But the full design won’t be done until after the vote. The outlines of the plan have changed regularly and are changing again because the state announced it would pay for much more work to be done at Mont Pleasant Middle School.
Architects are now working through a list of priorities to see what else can be added to the project for Mont Pleasant.
Among the possibilities: a better library, possibly a new cafeteria and renovations to widen narrow classrooms and resolve acoustics problems in classrooms with high ceilings.
Spring said school officials want a first-floor cafeteria, citing the difficulty of hauling items to the second floor, where the cafeteria is now. A new location could also resolve problems with acoustics and supervision, he said.
But they haven’t yet figured out how to relocate it without causing other problems.
“It’s got lots of folks scratching their head and thinking hard how to do that,” he said.
Hendricks is hoping to use some of the additional state money on the library, saying he would like to turn it into a modern media center.
School board President Cathy Lewis quizzed the building team — the architects, Hendricks and the fiscal adviser — on the finances of the project. She asked them to explain exactly how the district could spend $70 million without it costing the taxpayers anything.
The district doesn’t get the state money up front; the state pays when the work is “substantially complete,” said Mark Vislosky, CEO of Fiscal Advisors and Marketing. He has been hired to oversee the financial issues.
He said he has helped many districts run no-cost projects over the past three decades.
“It’s tried and true,” he said.
The state would review the district’s design before it goes out to bid. That way, he said, the district can be sure that the state will pay for nearly everything.
He said the worst-case scenario would create a slight taxpayer cost. For the owner of a property assessed at $100,000, the maximum cost would be $1.14 per year, he said.
The state review process takes many months, so the district won’t be able to start construction for more than a year. Bids would likely go out in March 2015.
Then the district would borrow the money for the project, but the state would reimburse every cent of the interest, he said.
Spring said school officials need to explain that math carefully to the public.
“We want to do a good job of explaining why that math is real,” he said. “We’re not trying to sell them a bill of goods.”