Summit has not seen any proposal like the five-year facility plan in about a decade. The last time we made such a huge investment in the future of our schools was the $23 million high school renovation project. That investment was not one to make our high school “state-of-the-art” or “futuristic,” but merely one to keep it competitive with the schools in the surrounding communities.
Getting that proposal passed was no easy feat. The Board of Education and Speak Up Summit, then with Ann Bushe at the helm, worked tirelessly to ensure that the school community was heard. They helped spread the word that investing in our schools was an investment in the future of Summit.
Now, it is time to act again. The proposal which will come before the Board of School Estimate next week is critical to the success of our school district. There are parts of the proposal that do no more than bring our facilities up to safety minimums. The BOSE has a responsibility to the children of this town to pass the five-year plan.
Speak Up Summit has issued previously a statement supporting full-day kindergarten. That decision was not made in a vacuum; we weighed all of the economic considerations with the proven benefits of investing in early education. We determined that committing to an all-day program is the right thing to do at this time for our community.
Even though the proposal would increase our taxes, the quality of our public schools is what continually draws people to Summit. Investment in our children’s futures will reap benefits for the long term educational and fiscal health of our town. A growing number of similarly rated schools (the I and J districts) are adding FDK, so we need to develop programs that allow us to stay competitive with our fellow schools. FDK, as part of this five-year program is critical to maintaining our excellence.
We are disheartened by the haste in which Common Council discounted FDK as an option. Council and the Mayor were publicly unsupportive of the FDK option even before the BOE held its community forum. We are respectful of the necessity to consider the additional burden on our taxpayers; however, FDK is a prospect that will better our community. Many parents are now paying to enroll their children in a full-day program…they know the benefits. It is the most at-risk kids that are not being included in longer curriculum-based programs. For several cycles now, the BOE, after many community-wide sessions with key district communicators and stakeholders, has identified focus areas that point to closing the achievement gap. A FDK program is one of the keys to closing the gap.
There are other issues on the table now that are unquestionably necessary and really should not be up for much deliberation. For example, the portion of the project that addresses problems at Jefferson School. A great concern by the Jefferson PTO is that the BOSE does not have an adequate understanding of the perils at the facility. Currently, the conditions at Jefferson School are abysmal. There is a dearth of bathrooms, grade issues, an on-site electrical transformer located next to the playground, lack of instructional rooms, and even a spreading sink hole. Clearly, these are not luxury items.
The Jefferson campus upgrades have nothing to do with the decision to move forward with full-day kindergarten. In actuality, the upgrades are for the elementary school, not the primary center which would need to be improved separately to house a full-day program.
Our middle school auditorium, a feeder program for our award-winning high school theater department, is an embarrassment in its current state. The seats are torn and filthy; health and safety regulations are certainly being violated. The auditorium is a beautiful room, with classic architecture deserving restoration.
No school remains without concern. Our schools lack some ADA requirements, have sub-par fire alarm systems, and security flaws allow access to people who can be buzzed in to roam the halls before approaching the office. Business Administrator Lou Pepe says that the mortar on the bricks at LCJSMS is deteriorating to the point where bricks could dislodge and strike someone below. A boiler needs replacing at the high school. Franklin students are learning in trailers. We need roof work, intercom work, siding and paving work. Again, these are not luxury items.
Yes, interest rates are at historic lows. Yes, labor is more affordable right now. Yes, we can make smart use of debt. And, yes, a multitude of school ranking reports have been published which show Summit’s room for improvement. Clearly, the time to invest in our schools is now. In our teachers, in our curriculum, and, this week, in our facilities. Without these improvements, in this competitive environment, Summit will not be able to keep up.
Mayor Dickson and Councilmen Bomgaars and Rubino: you and Council cite that 65-70 percent of Summit’s families do not have children in the public schools and therefore it is more fiscally responsible to consider the needs of this majority of constituents. But you need to consider further the importance of investing in our schools. We know that you are well intentioned, and are approaching the matter as fiscal conservatives as you look out for those with limited budgets and on fixed incomes. But your message needs to be that an excellent public school system is vital to the financial health and livelihood of everyone in the Summit community, whether or not they have children currently using the public schools. Tell your constituents about your willingness to invest in the infrastructure, curriculum and personnel of our schools. Please vote with the future of our schools in mind. No one is saying that the price tag is not high; it is always difficult to make a decision to spend more money. But, we cannot go forward without investing in our schools. We must trust that our BOE has made thoughtful and necessary recommendations. Sometimes you have to look at more than cost. This is a valuable investment in the future of Summit: our schools and our community. Please be open minded and consider what will truly be most beneficial for the vitality of all of Summit in the long term.