Niskayuna school district voters may have two questions to consider on a capital project referendum planned for February: whether to approve a slate of improvements with no local tax increase, and whether to chip in a small tax increase to also fund upgraded athletic facilities and other site improvements.
District officials are aiming to minimize any local tax increase by timing a new project to replace old debt coming off the books, and have promised the community an option of a project that carries no local increase. But during Tuesday’s school board meeting Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. and the district’s architect and construction manager said they may also propose a second question to pay for improvements that would otherwise lift the overall project cost above what can be paid for without a tax increase.
While the specifics of the two questions were not spelled out Tuesday night, Tangorra said that some aspects of the planned construction work, particularly improvements to athletic facilities and parking and traffic flow at school, don’t garner the state funding needed to keep the cost tax free to the community.
Tangorra, board members and community members, though, have highlighted upgrades to the district’s athletic facilities as a top priority. Tuesday’s presentation to the board emphasized an “urgent need to tackle a large number of longstanding facilities deficiencies.” Improvements to broader school sites – roads, parking lots, driveways, drainage and bus drop-offs – also qualify for limited or no state reimbursement but are considered important needs in the district.
“All of this work can’t be done for zero increase on the taxpayer,” Tangorra said.
It’s possible some of the athletic improvements will be included under the main part of the project and that other components are included in the second question, and Board President Howard Schlossberg on Wednesday said board members can ask to shift items included in one question to the other.
District officials and the project team are working with the state Education Department to pinpoint the best estimate of how much state reimbursement different parts of the project would receive. Those details are the final pieces needed for district officials to determine the costs of the overall project and decide whether to divide a portion of the project into a second questions for voters.
The bulk of the project, including classroom renovations and needed improvements to the “guts” of school buildings, will be focused in the first question and would need to pass for a second question to also be approved.
The core of the capital project is focused on restructuring and renovating Iroquois and Van Antwerp middle schools, so the district can shift its grade configurations to have all fifth and sixth graders in the district at Van Antwerp and all seventh and eighth graders at Iroquois. Van Antwerp in particular will need extensive renovations and improvements to the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems.
The roof at the district’s Hillside Avenue transportation center needs replacement, and each of the district’s elementary schools will receive some level of renovation, upgrading classrooms to be more flexible for educators and students.
District officials have pegged the overall project cost somewhere between $50 million and $80 million and did not provide any greater details of the costs on Tuesday. Tangorra and the project team said they would be able to work out the specifics after completing discussions with SED staff, presenting final figures at the board’s Dec. 8 meeting, when they will likely be asked to adopt a resolution to formally set the February vote.
“The worst mistake you can make is to present information to the board that has not been vetted through SED,” Tony Armlin, of Saratoga Project Management, told the board. “We really have to have the SED information to have that be a viable and meaningful conversation.”
Some board members, though, pressed Tangorra and the project team for more details on Tuesday.
Board member Greta Jansson said she wished she had more details about the cost and scope of the project, suggesting boards in other districts had more information at comparable points in the process of planning capital projects.
“I’m not really sure why we are different in that we can’t provide more details prior to us adopting what we are going to go out to the community with,” she said. “As a board member, I just want to have more. I want more than a conceptual idea, and I think that’s fair.”