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What you need to know for 07/22/2017

Vote set on Schenectady school renovations

Vote set on Schenectady school renovations

After months of debate and hours of tours, it is finally time to vote on Schenectady’s $70 million b
Vote set on Schenectady school renovations
Reading teacher Pam Brumbaugh meets with a small class in a storage area at Van Corlaer Elementary School on Guilderland Avenue in Schenectady.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

After months of debate and hours of tours, it is finally time to vote on Schenectady’s $70 million building project.

The vote will be Tuesday from noon to 9 p.m. A yes vote will let the district begin a decade-long renovation project that will eventually lead to a system with K-5 elementary schools, three middle schools for grades 6-8 and two high schools.

Only the first phase, mainly focusing on three middle schools, is up for vote Tuesday.

It would allow the district to turn Central Park back into a middle school, ripping out kindergarten bathrooms and resizing fixtures for adolescents.

Building project

Schenectady school district residents will vote Tuesday on school renovations. The $70 million renovations project includes:

• Renovating Mont Pleasant Middle School.

• Converting Central Park back to a middle school.

• Reopening Oneida Middle School.

• Converting Howe back into an elementary school.

• Adding a second floor to Howe.

• Converting the stage, a kitchen and other spaces into classrooms at Van Corlaer Elementary School.

The closed Oneida Middle School would also be substantially renovated. It needed work when it was closed in 2012, but the main reason for the closing was to save money.

Many of those students were moved to Mont Pleasant Middle School, where the influx of students and high turnover among principals may have led to the serious fights during and after school last fall.

Superintendent Laurence Spring wants to combat that problem, and the general problem of poor academic performance in middle school, by creating “small learning communities” in each of the three middle schools.

The three grade levels would be separated, with their own entrances and building wings. At Oneida, each grade would have its own floor.

To separate the grades at Mont Pleasant, architects have recommended substantial changes to the stately front entrance.

That has concerned some residents who want to preserve the character of the building.

The plan is to change the main doors, but no renderings have been made public yet. The architects have done only general design work prior to the referendum, since the work hasn’t been authorized by the public yet.

The side doors would also be changed so that each wing could be the entrance for one grade. Students would immediately head upstairs to their floor.

The wide grassy lawn would also look far different, with parking and a circle for drop-offs,

Mont Pleasant is slated to get many more interior renovations in future phases of the project, years from now. The public will vote on each phase.

The first phase’s work at the three middle schools would be complete by September 2016.

At that time, the district would also close Elmer Elementary School. There is poor drainage on the site, which has damaged the building, and architects said it would be too costly to save Elmer. They also said the site is too small to build a modern school in the area that wouldn’t be affected by poor drainage.

Among the most serious problems plaguing Elmer are toilet breakdowns, leaving the students with very few bathrooms to use.

The school board has reluctantly voted to close the building at the end of the 2015-2016 school year, presuming the project goes forward.

But the board can’t close Elmer unless there’s space for the students elsewhere. So the project includes turning the nearby Howe Early Childhood Center back into an elementary school. It became a pre-K and kindergarten building in 2009, when the elementary students were moved to a new K-8 school at Central Park.

The new plan would reverse those decisions, turning Howe back into an elementary school and Central Park back into a middle school.

There still wouldn’t be enough room for all the students, so the project calls for a second story to be built on the new wing at Howe. That would add four classrooms.

Still more room is needed, so the district would renovate Van Corlaer Elementary School, too.

That school is so squeezed for space that ESL students learn English in a former industrial closet. So many other closets are being used as classrooms that the balcony in the auditorium was turned into a storage space.

The project would turn the stage into three classrooms and turn other storage rooms into classrooms as well.

A kitchen would also become a classroom.

Some teachers have complained that the plan leaves them with no place for storage.

The project has been carefully designed in hopes of limiting the cost to local taxpayers.

The district hired a financial expert who has organized the work to maximize the amount of state aid. That’s one reason why it was cut into five phases — there’s a limit to how much work per building is covered by the state in a given time period.

For the first phase, the city expects 95 percent of the work to be covered by state aid. The last 5 percent would normally be the district taxpayers’ share, but the district has an unspent state grant that it can use to cover the entire 5 percent.

If the district calculated its work incorrectly, taxpayers could end up paying a small amount. The financial expert said the worst-case scenario would be a tax of $1.14 per $100,000 of assessed property.

The district would borrow money to cover the work, but the state would reimburse all the funds, including any interest payments.

Schenectady could run into some problems with borrowing $70 million, even temporarily.

The amount might go above the district’s debt limit, Spring said.

That’s why the referendum asks permission to exceed the debt limit for the project. If a supermajority of voters approves the referendum, the district can exceed the debt limit.

If the referendum passes, but by less than 60 percent of the vote, the district has other options for borrowing the money, Spring said.

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