To the Editor,
Much has been written about the bond referendum the Chatham Board of Education will put before the voters on April 21. In recent presentations, the School District of the Chathams continues to promulgate the view that the referendum as currently constructed represents a good value for Chatham taxpayers because it has something for everyone and will be financed with low interest rates.
The first problem with the Board’s approach is that the referendum does not address in comprehensive, strategic manner all of the District’s true facilities needs; rather, it cobbles together a grab bag of goodies that are intended to appeal to various constituencies, thereby increasing chances of passage when the votes of each interest group are added up.
Secondly, the Board refuses to understand that even when interest rates are low, issuing debt for projects of questionable necessity burdens the operating budget with debt service costs which divert scarce funding away from programs and teachers who are needed to deliver a quality educational experience for our kids.
In particular, the District’s desire to spend $14.2 million to build a new performing arts center at the Chatham Middle School and convert the existing auditorium into classrooms and administrative offices for the Superintendent and staff is a glaring example of the wastefulness embedded in the referendum.
Rather than spend less than $3 million to fully renovate the CMS auditorium, the District is asking to borrow over $11 million more than is necessary for a PAC, which will neither accommodate the entire school nor be used frequently enough to justify the cost. The PAC and new District offices alone will result in debt service costs of nearly $1,000,000 annually for the next 20 years. To be crystal clear, debt service costs are funded from the operating budget.
That’s nearly $1 million annually that can’t be spent on a more robust theater arts programs. That’s nearly $1 million annually that won’t be available to restore programs that were cut over 5 years ago when State aid was slashed when the economy crumbled.
That’s nearly $1 million annually that can’t be spent on full day kindergarten or other programs deemed important to the Chatham school community through an inclusive, transparent, and thoughtful strategic planning process.
As for the $100,000 in cost savings the District trumpets by building itself new offices? It’s hard to see how this is a realistic figure when taking into account the fact that debt service costs will roughly equate to what the District is actually paying Chatham Township in rent and utilities (about $60,000 annually).
Besides the fact that it is not prudent to use valuable educational real estate for administrative offices, the math just does not add up.
In a District in which property tax payers fund about 95% of the operating budget, each tax dollar contributed to our schools should be spent carefully and with an eye out to achieving the best bang for the buck. Nearly half of the requested borrowing will be for brick and mortar projects which if built, will constrain our operating budget choices for years to come and make it increasingly difficult to fund the educational programs important to our kids and desired by the broader Chatham community.
As a result, I will vote NO on the bond referendum on April 21, and encourage all my neighbors to do the same. Let’s go back to the drawing board in concert with the Board and do this referendum correctly.