GCSD considers May vote for reduced project

GUILDERLAND — The Guilderland school board is considering its next steps, following a failed capital-construction project referendum on Oct. 16. The $43 million project was rejected by a margin of 58 votes, with 11 percent of eligible residents voting.

The school board on Tuesday, following recommendations from its business-practices committee, leaned toward putting up a reduced project — with items deemed most essential — for a vote on May 15, the state-set date for budget votes.

The committee met on Nov. 9 with the district’s architect, Daniel Woodside of CSArch, Superintendent Marie Wiles, Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders, and Buildings and Grounds Supervisor Clifford Nooney to discuss what elements from the referendum should be brought back to voters and when.

Committee members present were Christine Hayes, Seema Rivera, Gloria Towle-Hilt, and Teresa Gitto.

Wiles said that, based on exit-poll results, the main reason for the “no” vote was probably the overall dollar amount. Another factor, she said, seemed to be an anonymous flier that went out just a few days before the vote, to which the board did not have time to respond; the exit-poll survey responses echoed phrases used in the flier, such as referring to the items in the referendum as a “wish list.”

The committee decided to recommend to the board that it work through the items in the original referendum, all of which had been deemed by the board to be Priority 1, and to separate them into three new priority levels, so that that new classifications can be presented to the school board to consider what to include in the new referendum.

Items from the original referendum include:

— Replacing the entire fire-alarm system and public-address system, and replacing the telephone system with an Internet Protocol system;

— Providing emergency lighting with battery backup and new exit signs;

— Replacing and supplementing security cameras;

— Adding security film over the glass at school entrances;

— Upgrading HVAC controllers and software; and

— Making technology improvements.

Despite some reservations about the potential for “sticker shock,” the committee decided to recommend to the board that it hold the vote on the pared-down referendum in May, along with the annual budget vote. This way, it could show voters that it listened to its criticisms of holding the vote at other times of year.

Wiles expressed some concern about hitting voters in May, all at once, with a $100 million annual budget; a referendum for replacement buses, which is an ongoing need; and this referendum.

The Guilderland Public Library has also announced that, in addition to its own budget, it will have a referendum for an $8 million capital project, also on the May ballot.

“When you’re thinking about attracting families in the future, I worry about our learning spaces,” Wiles said.

Delay adds costs

Holding the vote in May sets the improvements — if they are approved by voters — back by a year, because of the construction season, likely raising costs, Neil Sanders told the committee.

The committee wants to hold just one vote in May on the critical items, but then to separate the items in terms of how they would be presented to the State Education Department, if approved, in order to make it possible to quickly implement the ones that are most needed right away for safety and security.

As an example of a critical item, Wiles named the telephone system. She said that the system the district currently uses will be phased out by year’s end by NEC, the manufacturer, which means that parts will be increasingly hard to get when replacements or repairs are needed.

The point of putting the system in the referendum was to avoid a situation where the district encounters an emergency and then has a communications-system failure, with someone at the school where the situation is occurring unable to contact people who would help.

“How do we explain that?” she asked rhetorically.

The more critical items would be fast-tracked to a third-party review that would enable their construction to be bid and constructed in 2020, rather than being delayed another year. There would be an additional cost for that fast-tracking, according to Neil Sanders, which he estimated at $20,000 or $30,000.

Towle-Hilt called it “crazy” that the school board will now need to spend more to get the most critical items done.

Nooney remarked that putting off construction for a year also increases costs because it becomes necessary to factor in inflation including steel tariffs. Some labor costs also increase over time, said Sanders.

Prices generally don’t go down, Nooney said, with the exception of technology, which sometimes does.

Board support

Wiles said that she thinks it’s really important for the committee to make sure the entire board supports the idea of going forward on the premise of bringing a new referendum to voters in May. “If our board can’t support it, it’s very hard to convince the voters,” she said.

In September, the board had voted, 7 to 1, to bring the referendum to the voters, with Rivera absent, and with retired elementary-school teacher Timothy Horan casting the sole “no” vote.

Towle-Hilt said on Nov. 9 that Horan’s vote had come as a “shock” and that she had had “no hint” of why he opposed it. Horan earlier declined to comment to The Enterprise about his reasons for voting no.

At the full board meeting on Nov. 13, Horan participated remotely by Skype and said he supported bringing the referendum to voters in May. “One of the big criticisms was this idea of sneaking it by,” he said.

Albany County Comptroller Michael Conners used those words at a press conference before the referendum, saying the vote should have been held on Election Day. Several voters taking the exit poll also said it was secretive or sneaky. Actually, the Oct. 16 vote fell within the period that, had the bill Conners advocated for been law, would have been allowed. Both Albany County election commissioners concurred that a school vote on Election Day is not possible.

“If you have it in May, that becomes a non-starter,” Horan said by Skype at the Nov. 13 meeting. “If you have it in May, you lose time for starting, but you show the voters you listened.”

The cost of information

Parent Jim Cifarelli spoke at the Nov. 13 school board meeting, saying that he had voted no because he wanted more specific information, on which to base a decision. He said that the budget had requested nearly $300,000 for floor tile, but didn’t describe the extent of the work. It had said that the district didn’t know if asbestos is in the tile or not, but included remediation in the estimate. He said he wanted to understand better how estimates were calculated, how the bidding process works, and what happens to money not spent.

Cifarelli told The Enterprise afterward, “Trust, but verify. You can’t verify with the information they gave. So until I can verify, the answer will always be no.”

Board member Barbara Fraterrigo later asked the board to discuss Cifarelli’s comments.  

Sanders said that there is always a difficulty involved in estimating school capital projects: How much time, money, and energy should it spend, up front, he asked, on architectural designs and fees, when the entire referendum may be voted down? As a result, estimates are necessarily rough, he said.

“If it doesn’t get approved, we could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of architectural time and fees, detailing to a great degree the project. Again, there’s always a risk that it doesn’t come to fruition because it gets defeated,” Sanders said. “Typically, the decision is we don’t want to spend a lot of time and money up front, to analyze things to that degree, without knowing for sure that we’re going to have the voters approve the overall referendum,” he said, noting that this is why estimates are rough, prior to voter approval.

In response to Cifarelli’s question about money not spent, Sanders said, “We would borrow for what we needed.”

Sanders added, “If we spend less, the board has the right, and it would be up to the board’s approval, to go back and look at some of the other items that were on the list and, if it fit within the dollars available, to pursue that work, but that’s a board decision down the road. But initially we have the project defined, and if it comes in less, then we can borrow less.

“It’s only if the board says, ‘We do have additional money remaining, and there are projects that were reviewed as part of the overall capital project scope,’ that the board can go back and say, ‘With the additional money, we want to pursue these particular projects,’” he explained. 

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