To the Editor:
This is to follow up on my letter dated March 20 concerning the proposed expenditure of $2.1 million by the Board of Education of the School District of the Chathams (BOE) to construct a new central office building. While this item is itself notable, it also again brings to light more wide-ranging governance and oversight issues at the BOE.
As indicated previously, I recognize that the BOE is currently experiencing substantial, and well deserved, good will and praise for its ongoing handling of the social studies/religion issue. My comments are not intended to distract from that, but rather to maintain a parallel focus on the decision-making process of the BOE concerning its more conventional agenda items.
As also indicated previously, I am indifferent on the merits concerning the ultimate disposition of the subject $2.1MM.
The BOE has an opportunity here to adjust its deliberation and decision-making process to make it materially more transparent to the public, even as it continues to be reluctant to engage in “banter” with the public on particular topics (per BOE President, Ms. Jill Weber). More spirited discussion and debate between members of the BOE would eliminate or substantially reduce the need for members of the public to spend their time encouraging or requesting such “banter” in the first place. The example questions/comments suggested below would be a good place to start.
Rationale for $2.1 million Expenditure as Summarized at BOE Regular Meeting of Feb. 7, 2017 and Subsequently
A summary rationale for the proposed expenditure was provided at the BOE regular meeting on Monday 2/7/17, largely through prepared remarks by BOE President Weber, as well as in subsequent BOE regular meetings. Some may characterize BOE President Weber’s comments on Mon 2/7/17 as “disingenuous”, “intellectually dishonest,” “misleading,” “insulting to the intelligence” or something less flattering. I will instead opt for a more neutral (and charitable) characterization of “narrative in need of additional refinement and clarification”.
BOE President Weber repeated approximately four times on Mon Feb. 7, 2017 some combination of: “…withdrawal will have no impact on taxes…” or “…with no increase in taxes…”. Monies for Capital Reserve Account come from the operating budget (whether originally budgeted or with unbudgeted deposit later in Fiscal Year). Monies for the operating budget come from taxes (whether from property taxes or from “the State”).
It is true that once monies are in the CRA, they can only be used for capital projects. This, however, begs the question of whether the monies should have been placed in, or should be withdrawn from, the CRA in the first place.
“Termite infestation” and “foundation literally crumbling” (per SDOC Superintendent Dr. Michael LaSusa) do not suddenly appear and immediately render a structure’s condition “emergent”. Proper routine inspection and attention may well have prevented this “emergent” condition from arising in the first place. As such, the building could potentially have been preserved for a substantially longer period as a habitable structure (either for current purpose or for some other purpose) instead of being marked for necessary and imminent demolition.
The public has heard questions / comments from BOE members such as:
- “[O]ur hands are tied…safety takes priority…take a visit to the Special Services Building to see for yourself…”.
- “Did the Interim Executive County Superintendent actually visit the Special Services Building [such question presumably adding urgency and credibility to the proposed expenditure]?”
- “We are thinking ahead (e.g. Affordable Housing potential implications to future SDOC enrollment, etc) and planning for the future and this expenditure will position us toward that goal.”
- Would placement of a central office building on a school campus increase the efficiency of the SDOC administrative team relative to the current configuration (rental at 58 Meyersville Rd)?”
- “Given the emergent nature of the Special Services Building and related inadequate space for current personnel, this is the highest and best use of funds at this time.”
The above questions and comments are all constructive and directly pertinent to the diligence process. Unfortunately, however, to my knowledge the public has not (yet) also heard questions /comments/ dialogue amongst BOE members such as:
- “We are a $70MM business. Why has our Long Range Facilities Plan not been updated since approximately 2011?” (noting that SDOC administration’s separate explanation that the relevant software has not been updated by the State of NJ should not justify SDOC lack of attention to this item).
- “How can we be touting that we are ‘preparing for the future’ as partial justification for constructing a new central office building when, per above, there really appears to be no comprehensive facilities plan or framework as our Long Range Facilities Plan is so out of date?”
- “Following up on ‘…our hands are tied…’, why did we only find out about this (termites, crumbling foundation, other) in late CY 2016? Termites do not render a structure uninhabitable overnight. A foundation that is ‘literally falling apart’ also doesn’t happen overnight. It appears that we have let a building deteriorate beyond repair without proper routine inspection or maintenance. This has resulted in a cost of demolition that perhaps could have been avoided as well as a lost opportunity to perhaps repurpose the building. ‘The basement is not easily accessible’ is not sufficient justification or rationale.”
- “Given the nature of the disrepair at the Special Services Bldg as described, it seems that we have luckily avoided a potential scenario of personal injury to visitors or staff, not to mention a costly lawsuit. This is all thanks to a fortuitous ‘…concern raised about the basement…’ (per Dr. LaSusa) in late CY 2016. The good news is that a concern was raised before something unfortunate occurred. The disturbing component is that this was not discovered proactively by SDOC during some sort of inspection regimen. What should we be doing as BOE and SDOC to assure that such circumstance does not occur again in the future?”
- “The Interim Executive County Superintendent provided a letter to SDOC dated 1/10/17 acknowledging the emergent condition of the Special Services Building and authorizing expenditure of CRA funds. This is perhaps a question better directed to the IECS, but why didn’t the IECS also send us (the BOE) an accompanying nasty letter lambasting us for allowing this to occur and for potentially putting visitors and SDOC staff in harm’s way and taxpayers at unnecessary financial and other risk?”
- “How can we say with a straight face that expenditures of monies in the CRA will have no impact on taxes? CRA funds come from the operating budget.”
- “How can we say with a straight face that we are truly “saving” $85K by moving out of 58 Meyersville Road without including in the analysis the up-front expenditure of $2.1 million? For example, we say that “the savings will enable to hire more teachers and staff”. True, but allocating all or a substantial portion of the subject $2.1MM to clinical purposes over time (e.g. through non-deposit to CRA, other) would arguably have a more direct and lasting impact (e.g. cash-on-cash $100,000 per clinician for 10 yrs x 2 clinicians (of whatever discipline) = $2MM).
- “Staying with rent, the $60K rent component [with $25K balance for utilities etc] is not truly a savings to the taxpayers because such $60K will have a dollar-for-dollar negative impact on municipal taxpayers (Chatham Township in this case). Therefore, from a taxpayer perspective, there are no savings. We should recognize that, even though we have our own SDOC budget, we must also look more broadly at the impact on taxpayers, whether such impact falls on SDOC budget or on the municipal budget (Chatham Township budget in this case, but example would of course also hold for scenario where lessor were Chatham Boro rather than Chatham Township).”
- What have we done about comparing our physical utilization of the current rented space against industry norms in both the public and private sectors? How do we compare and is there flexibility to reconfigure to make more efficient use of our current space?” Is a tele-commuting element, which is now widespread across many industries, at all potentially applicable in this circumstance to partially address the space considerations?
- “Have we conducted a lease vs. buy analysis for the targeted administrative / professional space to complement the non-financial dimensions of the discussion (e.g. convenience of travel, custody of confidential documents etc)?”
- “The positive budget variances in the past few years have enabled unbudgeted deposits to the CRA sufficient to fund this proposed expenditure. Otherwise, we would have been required to borrow for this capital expenditure and seek formal public approval to do so through a public question. Have we clearly and sufficiently communicated this to the public?”
- “In connection with comment immediately above, should we at least consider voluntarily soliciting feedback from the public via a survey or similar process, particularly given the feedback in the prior survey (Capital Improvement Feedback, 11/2/15)? “
- “Given that the emergent condition of the Special Services Building appears to be the catalyst to this proposed expenditure, have we solicited feedback from those with the most direct interest in Special Services (e.g. parents, guardians, other) concerning whether THEY agree that this expenditure is worthwhile versus other alternatives (e.g. we are comfortable in rental space as is, we need new facilities on SDOC property, monies should be spent for clinical purposes rather than for physical plant etc, is there any magic to being on SDOC property or is rented space elsewhere also sufficient (or perhaps even preferable), do we have particular concerns about confidentiality of documents in rented space vs SDOC property, other)? If so, what has been the feedback? If not, why have we not (yet) solicited such feedback?”
- “Concerning feedback from Special Services interested parties (e.g. parents, guardians, other), is there an argument that such feedback should be solicited by the BOE directly in some fashion rather than through SDOC due to potential confidentiality concerns or other reservations that the directly interested parties may have?”
- “Concerning Ms. Weber’s comment that ‘… we have been studying this item for several years and the Special Services Building has exasperated [sic] the situation’, we made many of the same arguments during the referendum process that we are making here (e.g. need central office space on campus, need to consolidate staff from various locations (albeit perhaps not including the 5-6 staff at Special Services Building at the time)). The public told us unequivocally in survey that they were against expenditure for central office building (Capital Improvement Feedback (11/2/15)). They said to make do with status quo. How do we reconcile that?”
- “Saying that this is a different circumstance because Capital Improvement Feedback only related to “raising taxes” and to “borrowing” is not valid justification to discount or disregard that feedback. The question at hand was and is use of funds rather than source of funds. If, on the other hand, we truly can demonstrate per survey proposed above that those with direct interest in Special Services and others deem such expenditure highest and best use, then perhaps we can justify discounting this 11/2/15 feedback (given arguable material change in circumstances). Otherwise, how can we justify spending $2.1 million for this purpose notwithstanding that we do not need formal approval from voters to do so?”
Will the BOE yet engage in spirited open debate and incorporate public input into its deliberations concerning the proposed expenditure for the central office building? An optimist would say yes. Given the recent examples of April/November voting item and Washington Avenue School parking lot, as well as BOE public dialogue to date concerning the proposed central office building expenditure, however, a realist may unfortunately have to resort to the refrain “…here we go again…”.
“Here we go again…”, on the other hand, should not discourage the public from becoming, or staying, involved in the process. Rather, it should encourage the public to continue to prod the BOE into incorporating the public’s views into its decision-making process on a consistent basis going forward, whatever those views may be and on whatever topics.
Absent such prodding, and notwithstanding the unquestioned impeccable credentials of BOE members ethics-wise and otherwise, decisions made in the future concerning topics yet to be determined could well have implications to taxpayers far greater than those associated with the subject $2.1MM proposed expenditure. Those taxpayers with children in SDOC have an equal, if not greater, stake in this process than those without children in SDOC.
The BOE’s responsibility is to oversee the SDOC on behalf of the citizens as a whole. It does not work for or answer to the SDOC. All, and not just some or most, of its decisions should be made with that in mind. An open and comprehensive diligence process in this instance would be most appreciated by the public, whatever the ultimate decision may be.
3 Crestwood Drive
Chatham Township, NJ 07928-1720