Money not-so-well spent
There are certain questions I’ve always hated.
Such as: Where do you think you’ll be in five years?
I never know how to answer that. Can anyone really predict what they’ll be doing in five years? After all, life is full of surprises. Or maybe I’m just a poor planner, unable to articulate clear goals or a vision for my life. That said, I think long-range planning is a good idea. Especially when it comes to institutions that depend on taxpayer money.
Last week The Gazette ran an article about two local school districts that are planning new construction projects — projects that would undo renovations made relatively recently.
Just four years ago, the Schenectady City School District completed a $6.1 million project that turned Central Park Middle School into an elementary school. Next month, the school district will ask voters to sign off on a $3.6 million project that would convert the facility back into a middle school.
Meanwhile, the Niskayuna Central School District is debating closing Birchwood Elementary School to save money; less than a decade ago, district voters approved spending $5.4 million to renovate the school and add five classrooms.
As someone who generally tries to support public schools, stories like this get on my nerves.
They make it harder, quite frankly, to make the case that schools really do need more aid from the state, or that they’re capable of spending additional aid wisely.
Friday’s edition of The Gazette featured the following two headlines: “Educators plead case for more aid” and “Schools seek to ondo their costly efforts.” Fair or not, this is an eyebrow-raising juxtaposition. I first noticed it on Twitter, when a journalist sent out a tweet mocking it.
In an interview with The Gazette’s Kathleen Moore, Schenectady schools Superintendent Laurence Spring blamed the effort to turn Central Park back into a middle school on a lack of a long-range planning in the original construction project.
“Having that kind of plan, looking that far out into the future, I think is critical,” he said. “We converted a couple of schools to K-8, but we didn’t have an articulated plan.”
The Schenectady City School District just began paying off its share of the Central Park Middle School project, approximately $305,000. Niskayuna is about half done paying off its $1.8 million debt
from the Birchwood Elementary School project.
Looking at the numbers, I can’t help but wonder whether New York is too generous with its school building aid. The state paid for about two-thirds of the Birchwood project and about 95 percent of the Central Park project.
Does the state’s willingness to foot so much of the bill mean that districts are less likely to consider the long-term ramifications of their construction projects and reverse course within a fairly short period of time? What would happen if the state was less giving? Would we see fewer construction projects … and fewer mistakes?
The bulk of the money for local school construction projects might come from the state, but it doesn’t fall from the sky. Taxpayers pay for these projects.
When school districts fail to plan properly, it impacts almost the entire community. Families are up in arms over the potential closure of Birchwood Elementary School. I have no attachment to Birchwood, having never been a student there. But I do wonder whether better planning could have prevented some of this angst.
Schools, and school renovations, are expensive.
It goes without saying that they should last a long time.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/foss.