YORKTOWN, N.Y. – Is the middle of a pandemic the right time for a school district to renovate a high school gym?
With a $1.8 million proposal on the table and a decision needed this month, members of the Yorktown Central School District Board of Education debated that question at their meeting on Monday, Dec. 21.
But such a question, administrators said, cannot be answered without considering how the project—and, more importantly, the funding for the project—came to be.
In 2017, district voters approved the creation of a capital reserve fund of up to $12 million. Voter authorization is required to withdraw funds and $8 million has been spent. Voters also have greenlit spending the remaining $4 million, from which funding of the gym renovations would be derived.
But with school districts in financial distress because of the pandemic, largely due to reduced state aid, New York State is allowing public school districts to use such funds to plug shortfalls in their operating budgets, with one major caveat: The money must be repaid to the reserve fund in five years with interest.
“It might feel really good in year one, but I’ve seen this story play out in year two, three and four, and it sets a district up for long-term fiscal jeopardy,” said schools Superintendent Dr. Ron Hattar.
Trustee Michael Magnani, who chairs the board’s Fiscal Advisory Committee, said borrowing from the capital reserve fund would run counter to the spirit of its creation.
“This is exactly the reason why we created the capital reserve fund, so that we wouldn’t have to borrow to do projects,” Magnani said. “So, to turn around and say that we would borrow that money back again, it’s really counterproductive to what we originally intended.”
Hattar, explaining the improvements, said the gymnasium is more than an athletic space: It is an instructional space for physical education classes, a testing location, and has hosted community events and concerts.
“It has seen better days,” Hattar said. “It could certainly use an improvement, not only for aesthetics but certainly for the safety component, as well.”
Bleachers, adorned with a logo, would have safety rails; acoustical panels would be put in the ceiling; Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value filters would be added; new wall mats and retractable basketball hoops would be installed; the floor would be refinished; new lighting would be installed, and new mechanical dividers would enable the court to be divided as needed.
“This is not just cosmetic work,” Magnani said. “We’re talking about significant structural work.”
At the multipurpose field, an additional set of ADA-compliant bleachers also would be added to increase capacity on the home side by about 50 percent, and a patio with high-top tables (no seating) would be added near the concessions trailer.
The school district put out three separate requests for proposals: electrical work (low bid of $254,000), HVAC (low bid of $933,000), and a motorized gym curtain divider, padding, and exterior site and drainage work (low bid of $599,000). Bids came in about $400,000 lower than expected, Hattar said.
The school board has 45 days to accept the bids. The next school board meeting is Monday, Jan. 11.
If the bids are awarded, the anticipated completion date for the project is late summer.
“I want to do this project because the gym does need an overhaul,” said trustee Anthony D’Allesandro. “I do believe we also got such a great price because of the environment we’re in...I think moving it forward to next year, we might not see that wonderful price of $400,000 less than what we thought it was going to be.”
D’Allesandro said the time might not be right for a project of this nature, but advocated for moving forward with the bids.
“Do I believe it’s the greatest time to do something like this? Probably not,” he said. “But we need to do this gym and [the money] was appropriated for the gym two years ago…Maybe it’s not the best time to do something like this; however, maybe something good should come out of the light of this pandemic.”
Trustee Lisa Rolle wondered whether the money could be repurposed.
“This was decided three years ago under completely different circumstances. Maybe now the community feels the gym is not their top priority and the money should be used for something else,” Rolle said. “And my question is simply: Can that happen if that’s what the community wants?”
Hattar said he would find an answer to her question.