Wait-and-see approach; Board of Ed hopes to get state funding for school construction
Hoping to cash in on the state's proposed generous school construction program, the Secaucus Board of Education voted May 25 against issuing bonds to expand two schools and agreed to take out a short-term loan instead. The state program, according to Board Member Douglas McCormack, would help to fund up to 40 percent of school district's construction costs, provided the district has not yet taken on long-term bonding for the project. "This could mean significant savings to Secaucus taxpayers," MacCormack said. In Secaucus' case, this could mean savings of nearly $2 million if the best estimates are reached and the state agrees to give the school district the money. Board Member Michael Pesci said the Finance Committee agreed to look for short-term financing in two aspects, borrowing $6.5 million and then re-depositing it. Some of it will go into a money market account that would allow the district to meet some of the bills that are currently coming due for pre-construction planning, and the rest will go into a CD which is at a slightly higher rate of interest. Both accounts will provide the district with higher incoming interest that was being paid on the original loan. Many of the school districts around the state, MacCormack said, are doing the same thing, putting pressure on the state to keep from backing out of what has become a $15 billion dollar sink hole. The state - under the mandate to bring up the quality of schools in poor, urban areas - also has been dumping more cash into the pot to cover medium and wealthy districts to keep those districts from complaining. Early in May, the state senate added $840 million to the pot, followed by an additional $600 million a couple of days later - money that, if the bill is passed by the state legislature, would help fund school district construction costs. In order to avoid the backlash of the wealthier districts, the state senate even proposed funding school districts that built any new buildings over the last 30 years - a proposal that would have given Secaucus financing for Clarendon school and the high school, both constructed during the 1970s. State officials, realizing the black hole they had created, abandoned that proposal a few days later. The legislation approved by the budget committee provides funding to all school districts which approved school construction programs after September 1998. The state legislature planned to vote Thursday to allow districts that approved programs in referendums before September 1998 but have not completed construction to be eligible for the aid as well. Gov. Christie Whitman - the author of the original legislation - has largely disavowed herself of what seems to be uncontrolled spending by the senate. Last year, she proposed a $9.4 billion public school construction program in order to meet the mandates set by the state supreme court. Under the original proposal, the state's 30 poorest urban districts would see money. The Supreme Court has said that shovels must be in the ground for urban school construction by this spring. School districts, pressed by population increases to expand, have pressured legislators to include them even though towns like Secaucus don't meet the original Supreme Court mandate. Every school district in the state will be eligible for at least 40 percent state aid toward the cost of renovating and or building new schools under the Senate legislation, and 30 urban districts covered by a state Supreme Court ruling would receive 100 percent funding. Currently, many suburban school districts are eligible for little or no state construction aid, and must fund construction costs solely through property-tax-backed bonds. In anticipation of the bill's passage, school officials in Secaucus and elsewhere were rubbing their hands, taking out short-term loans in order to qualify. How much Secaucus can expect remains a mystery, since the state is maintaining its right to disqualify certain costs. Board member Paul Amico, however, said architectural design costs will be covered. Earlier in May, Board Member Anthony Rinaldi said the surveys were being conducted in preparation for the project, and soil samples taken, part of comprehensive study to determine that materials will be best suited for the site. This usually takes four to eight weeks. From this schedule and plan, he is hoping to break ground on upgrades to both elementary schools by August or September. He said town government has been very helpful. Compromise calendar adopted
Over the objections of one parent who claimed to represent a silent majority satisfied with the week off in February, a split Board of Education voted to adopt a compromise calendar for next year that would provide a week off in November for students and a long weekend in February, rather than shuffling various holidays around to provide a week-long February break. Board member Edward Rittberg - although open to compromise - disagreed with the new calendar choice, saying that the calendar finally adopted leaves kids with no significant break in their studies for a 15-week stretch between the end of the Christmas holidays and the week off following Easter. Board member Elanore Reinl, who voted reluctantly for the compromise calendar, said she disagreed with the week break in November because of the difficulty modern families have in obtaining childcare. "In some families both parents work, and we have more and more single working mothers for whom the week-long break is a burden," Reinl said. John Voli, the board's newest member, said he agreed with the week off in February, but said the board should avoid changing its calendar from year to year, and set a policy that would have a regular calendar every year. "People will adapt to whatever calendar we set as long as it is consistent," Voli said, noting that his family routinely plans their vacations around the winter week off. As a result of the compromise, the schools will be closed from Nov. 6 to 10 next year, forming a weeklong block. "This will allow us to do any heavy construction work before the ground freezes," said board member Paul Amico, who claimed the week would provide a time for school expansion when students are not attending classes. "If we have to put in footings or use jackhammers, these won't disturb anyone." To help break up the 15-week gap between Christmas and Easter, Amico's compromise will move the Feb. 12 Lincoln's birthday from Monday to Friday of that week and adding a teacher's training day to provide a five-day weekend.