I am writing this letter in response to the letter submitted to the editor by Mr. Len Resto on Feb. 9, 2015.
Mr. Resto begins his letter by asserting that neighboring Summit (certainly a wonderful school district in its own right) boasts award-winning performing arts programs, but that Chatham’s programs are “ignored.” Summit has fabulous programs. Chatham, too, is proud of its performing arts programs.
Every year, individual students compete and win awards at the county, area, regional, state, eastern, and national levels. CHS graduates have gone on to study their craft at schools like Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music. From a curricular standpoint, our ensemble groups—wind ensemble, orchestra, symphonic band, voices, concert choir, and select choir—have traveled, performed, and been recognized for their superior performance at festivals in places from Virginia Beach to Hershey Park.
On a near annual basis, our groups have also performed at prestigious venues like Carnegie Hall, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and Lincoln Center. Our theater students have also brought home brass for acting, writing, and technical design at competitive events including the Bucks County Playhouse and Montclair Drama productions. The many accolades, awards, and accomplishments of our performing arts students are too numerous to list here, and demonstrate a vibrant set of curricular and extracurricular programs.
As the superintendent of our school district, I am proud of the fine work and outstanding accomplishments of our teachers and students in the performing arts. Mr. Resto also posits that a modern auditorium space located offsite from Chatham High School could not possibly be utilized on a regular basis by Chatham High School students. I would like to point to a different district facility, Cougar Field. Located three-quarters of a mile from Chatham High School, the Cougar Field complex is the site of most boys’ athletic programs, as well as our largest single co-ed athletic team, Spring Track.
The Chatham Township Board of Education purchased the Cougar Field property in the 1970s. Given that the site was located away from the high school and contained abandoned greenhouses, perhaps some residents at the time questioned the wisdom in acquiring this land. The district converted large portions of the property into athletic fields and laid out the plan of the complex that has remained largely unchanged through today (the current referendum also seeks to make improvements here).
In the 1990s, the district made additional investments in the property by building a new field on “back” Cougar. Then, in 2005, the school district invested roughly $2.6 million as part of a referendum into installing artificial turf at Cougar and Haas fields (the latter, of course, is the site of almost all of our high school girls’ athletic programs). In other words, the Board of Education over time has invested significant sums of money in this property. It has done so because it believes the fields at Cougar serve school district students on a near daily basis (after school, by the way, and not during the school day) and is a community asset that extends beyond district-only use for children involved in recreation programs after school and during the summer. Indeed, when I first began working in Chatham as a high school teacher in 2001, I was amazed at the size, spirit, and pride associated with Cougar Weekend.
The new auditorium, which would showcase major performing arts events, provide a reliable rehearsal and assembly facility for district programs, and enable the conversion of the current auditorium into STEM labs and integrated office space, should also be viewed as a comprehensive enhancement that will benefit students in school and after school.
Mr. Resto’s next point is that Summit was able to refurbish its auditoriums through its operating budget, so Chatham should do the same. One of the challenges we have faced in Chatham is explosive enrollment growth. Our enrollment has increased roughly 90 percent since the formation of the district in 1989, roughly 40 percent since the year I began in the district, and roughly 27 percent since the last referendum, exactly 10 years ago. In 2011, the year Mr. Resto cites as the year of the auditorium renovation in Summit, our Board of Education was working to expand the size of the high school in a multi-year process so as to accommodate the larger class sizes working their way through the district.
Put differently, in recent years our board of education has prioritized our available resources to increase classroom space at CHS in order to meet the academic needs of students. It has done so by drawing down capital reserves and
avoiding a referendum question. The choice to push capital monies into more classroom space at the high school has meant that other important projects have been delayed.
In a broader context, the roughly $55 million in capital investments that have been approved via referendum over the past 20 years has been dedicated to three main purposes: additional classroom space at every school building, modernized library-media centers at every school building, and improved and expanded athletic facilities. On this last point, the district has built new gymnasiums at Southern Boulevard School, Chatham Middle School, and Washington Avenue School; has built or improved fields at Haas and Cougar fields; and has installed new bleachers for older gymnasiums and made other investments in the fields located at Cougar and the high school.
In sum, the district has directed resources to academic and athletic facilities. One reason it has been unable to do the same for performing arts spaces is that these spaces are expensive to improve: their finishes are more costly than those of classrooms and they occupy a large footprint. It is inaccurate to claim, as Mr. Resto does, that the current condition of our auditoriums is a symptom of poor maintenance. Rather, it is evidence that facilities and their contents have a life span. Just as I would not expect to buy a new couch for my living room and have it last 60 years, I would not expect the original seating, carpet, electrical systems, air conditioning units, and asbestos-tile flooring in an auditorium to last more than half a century, irrespective of their maintenance.
Our board of education believes that investments in these areas cannot be deferred any longer. The current auditoriums were built for two separate school districts, at a time when building codes, district needs, and the overall student populations were much different than today. It would certainly be cheaper to simply refurbish both auditoriums, and our Board of Education has considered doing so in the most modest fashion possible. The cost estimate for bare-bones, minimal upgrades to both facilities would run between $1 and $2 million apiece. However, the costs quickly and significantly escalate if any structural construction—such as even modestly enlarging the footprint for the sake of more storage or seating, or dealing with roofing, HVAC, sound booth, dressing room, and other deficiencies—is undertaken.
The total cost estimate for truly comprehensive refurbishments stretches into the $6 to $8 million range, and still would not provide the opportunity to create STEM classroom space out of the existing middle school auditorium. If the district wishes to extract as much value as possible from a construction project, and optimally position itself for current and future needs, the best solution is the one currently proposed. The combination of low interest rates, the maturity of the bond that financed the 1995 referendum, and other factors have led the board to conclude that a referendum to help address a number of facility needs is prudent at the present time
As superintendent, I value every learner in the district. I believe in maximizing student learning opportunities in a diverse range of activities, and in ensuring that there is equity in the quality of those opportunities. Our board of education is committed to the same, and has also concluded that a single-question referendum designed to enhance the student learning experience in our school district in a comprehensive fashion is the most appropriate path toward that end.
Dr. Michael LaSusa