Dear Editor,
In his letter to the editor dated Feb. 9, Sal Arnuk argues in favor of the School District of the Chathams borrowing $14 million (BOE estimates it to be $11.5 to $12.5 million) to build a 975-seat performing arts center on the middle school oval and to convert the existing auditorium to administrative offices, rather than spend only $2-3 million to fully renovate the existing middle school auditorium (with much of that cost potentially offset by debt service relief provided by the State of NJ).
Unfortunately, Mr. Arnuk’s analysis in my view doesn’t justify what would be an enormous expenditure of public funds on an elaborate new building, the necessity of which is suspect at best given the much less expensive alternatives available to the School District. Asking Chatham property tax payers to fully shoulder the cost of a new performing arts center diverts scarce public resources from educational programs by saddling the district’s operating budget with debt service costs on just one trophy building for years to come.

Assuming the debt is repaid over 20 years, approximate annual debt service on the performing arts center alone will be $800,000 annually; these are funds which could instead be used to bolster the in-class learning experience for our children through program enhancements and the hiring of qualified teaching resources.

Modernization of the existing auditoriums is achievable at significantly less cost to the taxpayers. Neighboring school districts have chosen this path with great success. Summit recently renovated their existing high school auditorium for only $1.5 million. That facility is now a beautiful, ADA-compliant state of the art theater that seats over 900 people and houses a very well-regarded theater arts program. Summit’s Board of Education clearly realized that a performing arts center is not a prerequisite to a successful educational program, and that it is programs, not palaces, which make the difference in our kids’ learning experience.

The argument that taxpayers somehow have an obligation to fund a brand new theater simply because the middle school auditorium is outdated is simply not persuasive. As Summit has successfully demonstrated, outdated facilities can be renovated and brought up to modern standards without wasting $10.8 million in public funds.

Attempts to justify excessive borrowing on the grounds that the existing auditoriums cannot hold the entire student body at each school are puzzling, since the planned renovations to the high school auditorium and the addition of the 975-seat performing arts center at the middle school will NOT result in the ability to accommodate all students plus teachers at either school.

So, the question of why we are not simply renovating the middle school auditorium must logically be asked. Certainly, new school district offices and STEM classrooms, the necessity of which have not been adequately demonstrated by the board of education, are not a rational answer.

The practice of breaking up assemblies and concerts by grade can continue as it has successfully for many years, but in renovated auditoriums. The substantial cost of a new theater may be justified from the perspective of civic pride, but certainly cannot be justified from the standpoint of providing new functionality that presently does not exist.

Finally, wasting public funds is never a good idea, even if interest rates are historically low.Even at low rates, the cost of the performing arts center and conversion of the existing middle school auditorium in operating budget terms will be about $1 million each year, in addition to incremental increases in operating expenses associated with running and maintaining the new theater.

The debt service savings from NOT building a new theater could instead be redirected to bolstering classroom resources should voters decide to do so via approval of the operating budget or a second question.  I agree with Mr. Arnuk that “resources should be devoted to both the infrastructure as well as the curricular programs,” however, to expect taxpayers to support BOTH an extravagant performing arts center AND future above-cap increases to the operating budget is not only wasteful, but it takes the Chatham property tax payers’ generosity for granted.

Renovating our auditoriums is a good solution that will not constrain our future budget choices in the current environment of negligible State aid and choking property taxes. The pockets of Chatham property tax payers are not bottomless; our economic recovery, especially in NJ, has been less than robust and new jobs created are at much lower wage levels than was the case before the global financial crisis of several years back.

The property tax burden in Chatham is significant, especially for seniors and those struggling to recover from tough economic times. It is therefore imperative that the school board be good stewards of public funds by focusing on the renovation and maintenance of our existing facilities instead of building a new performing arts palace, which without proper funding of performing arts programs will do absolutely nothing to provide an educational experience for our kids that is appreciably better than what could be taught in a renovated auditorium.

Peter Hoffman

Chatham Borough