To the Editor:

The Board of Education of the School District of the Chathams (BOE) and the Administration have received widespread, and well deserved, positive feedback from the public in recent months and days concerning the handling of the 2016 bond referendum, the religion/social studies curriculum item and probably also a host of other items of which I am unaware.

Having said this, a comment from Jane Devlin of Chatham in a letter to Chatham Courier print edition of Thursday, March 9 (and elsewhere) is directly relevant to my comments below: “…Showing the [SDOC]’s outstanding, hard-working Administration and volunteer Board consistent support does not require everyone’s blanket approval on all topics…. [O]ngoing involvement and active participation is civics put into practice….”

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While the BOE has largely succeeded in forging general consensus from public controversy with the aforementioned items, I hope to encourage at least some public controversy and dialogue concerning a much more mundane item. The BOE is currently considering an expenditure of approximately $2.1 million from funds on hand in the Capital Reserve Account (CRA) for a new central office building.

This building, which would accommodate administration and certain other SDOC services, would be constructed either at the site of the soon-to-be-demolished Special Services Building at 233 Lafayette Avenue or elsewhere on SDOC property. Assuming that it determines to proceed, the BOE has indicated that construction would begin sometime later in CY 2017.

I oppose the expenditure of $2.1 million for this purpose, pending the following:

  • comprehensive public dialogue and vetting both amongst members of the BOE and between the BOE and the public; and
  • the outcome of a Public Question that I suggest that the BOE voluntarily propose to the voters concerning this item (at a date later in CY 2017 to be determined and binding vs. non-binding to be determined) (note: if a Public Question cannot be legally undertaken in this context, then substitute “District-wide Citizen Survey to be conducted by BOE” for “Public Question” below).

I hope that others will heed the Devlin comment above by becoming acquainted with this item and then voicing your position to the members of the BOE, whatever that position may be. Paraphrasing a comment of many moons ago attributed to the late Sen. Everett Dirksen: “a [m]illion here, a [m]illion there, and pretty soon you are talking some real money…”

SUMMARY OF POSITION

The BOE should refrain from making the proposed expenditure pending further substantive dialogue and public input as referenced above. Among other things, this dialogue should address the absolute need for the new structure at this time as well as the relative benefit of expending monies for this purpose versus other purposes.

Rationale as follows:

  • Procedurally, the BOE has effectively already asked this question recently and received negative feedback from the public. See responses to survey conducted in CY 2015 re the 2015 referendum in anticipation of the 2016 referendum, which responses unequivocally indicated a disapproval of use of funds for this purpose(see 9th and 10th slides from Capital Improvement Feedback (11/2/15), available on SDOC website in “2016 Referendum” section).

  • While this may well be a prudent and reasonable use of funds, this expenditure has not been demonstrated to the public to be the highest and best use of funds at this time. Although a prudent and reasonable threshold may be sufficient in an unlimited budget context, the discipline of determining highest and best use is integral in a limited budget context.

  • Alternative uses for the monies, such as the following, have not been sufficiently vetted: to increase/maintain the balance in the CRA for true “rainy day” and other appropriate purposes; to otherwise lower the level of deposit to the CRA in the following Fiscal Year (and thereby free up funds for other uses within operating budget for following FY); otherwise lower the operating budget for the following FY; or for some other purpose(s) (e.g. STEM, special ed, additional school counselor(s), other).

  • The fact that funds in CRA cannot be used for operating purposes (e.g. salaries etc) does not in and of itself justify the use of funds for the currently proposed expenditure. This is particularly relevant given that the BOE anticipates making an additional, and unbudgeted per the 2016-17 budget, deposit to the CRA later in FY2016-17, which deposit would serve to facilitate this proposed expenditure.

  • The public survey response referenced above, combined with the fact that the proposed expenditure represents approximately 3 percent of the 2017-18 proposed SDOC budget of approximately $70 million, justifies voluntary placement of a Public Question by the BOE on the ballot (notwithstanding that the proposed source of funds is the CRA rather than a bond issue).

  • The BOE has not made a credible case that the current situation with leased space at 58 Meyersville Road (Chatham Township Municipal Building) justifies the proposed expenditure either spatially, financially or otherwise, even considering the additional 5-6 SDOC employees recently transferred to 58 Meyersville Road from the Special Services Building. 

  • According to the BOE, this proposed expenditure has been under consideration for some time but was brought to the forefront in late CY 2016 due to the beyond-repair structural condition of the Special Services Building and the related decision to demolish the building. The seeming “emergent” nature of the situation is not a sufficient justification or excuse for the BOE to ignore or circumvent the aforementioned survey feedback.

I am personally neutral on the merits concerning the proposed expenditure. It only caught my attention because virtually the identical expenditure was included in the aforementioned survey as a potential scenario and such scenario was rejected by the survey respondents (albeit in a borrowing/bonding context rather than a strict use-of-funds context irrespective of source of funds and albeit prior to the Special Services Building circumstance). 

 CONCLUSION

In light of the survey feedback, as well as the order of magnitude of expenditure involved, the BOE should formally include the public in the decision-making process by voluntarily proposing a Public Question sometime later in CY 2017. The fact that the source of funds would be from the CRA rather than bonds is no excuse to avoid a Public Question and no excuse to ignore strong public sentiment per the aforementioned survey feedback. The fact that the Special Services Building became uninhabitable after the conclusion of the 2016 referendum process is also no excuse to avoid a Public Question. Finally, the anticipated cost of conducting a Public Question ($15-25K or whatever the dollar amount may be vs. a $2.1MM proposed expenditure) is no excuse to avoid a Public Question.

If, on the other hand, public dialogue is robust in coming weeks and months and there is strong sentiment AMONGST THE PUBLIC, AND NOT JUST AMONGST THE BOE, that the proposed expenditure is the highest and best use of funds at this time and that conducting a Public Question is a waste of time and money, then fine with me – identify the site and start digging and pouring concrete as soon as possible. Similarly, if a Public Question is conducted and voters approve the proposed expenditure, then see final clause of previous sentence.

Thank you.

Stewart Carr

3 Crestwood Drive

Chatham, NJ 07928-1720