BY ALAN D. KATZ
Former Clarkstown School Board President
George Santayana, the 19th century Spanish philosopher once said… “Those who cannot learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” This time honored quote has never been more relevant than on the eve of the December 10th School District bond vote.
The recent history of Bond votes in Clarkstown has not been pretty:
–The Mega Bond of 2008
This $180MM+ bond—the largest ever put forth in New York history—was sold to the public as the only possible solution for our District’s facility needs–and comically– to a bug and vermin infestation at North High School. It was also filled with enough pork to virtually guarantee passage in each school community. We were told this might be our last chance to get state aid. And in an eerie case of foreshadowing, the bond was also billed as the only way to keep Congers Elementary School open so as to secure critically needed votes.
Anyone questioning the validity of any aspect of the plan was immediately deemed by the Board to be an evil child hater who wanted all property values to sink to zero. Luckily, the bond failed by a 3-1 margin, because the ensuing recession would have caused steady double digit tax increases or insolvency. And the state aid percentage has remained unchanged ever since…
–The North High School Turf Field Bond
For reasons known only to the Board and Administration, this bond did not include bleachers, an obvious expectation by the voters, which took another 2-3 years to be installed, without state aid dollars, costing the district hundreds of thousands of dollars as well as disrupting North High graduations.
–The Case of the “Found” Bond Money
Bond money which had been authorized by the public to be used on approved projects was ”misplaced” in unlabeled bank accounts and then mysteriously “found” a few years later when there was a shortfall in an upcoming budget. A clear answer as to the discrepancy was never given.
–The Congers Elementary Fiasco
In perhaps the greatest fraud ever perpetrated, the Board and Administration reneged on what was known to virtually every citizen of Clarkstown—that the vote on the $6.5M bond would be a referendum on keeping Congers open as an elementary school. In fact, there is solid evidence to suggest that remediation needs at the school were intentionally overstated in order to ensure a preconceived outcome– closing Congers instead of a different school– in the wake of falling enrollments and a state mandate to “right size” our space. And in a classic case of irony that would make O Henry chuckle…the Mega Bond which promised to save Congers failed and the school stayed open…the Congers only bond passed and the school was closed!
In its most cruel moment, the District created a “Hunger Games” like atmosphere by pitting three schools against each other to see which two would “survive.” Inevitably, Congers was chosen, which essentially wasted 6.5M of our tax dollars.
Which brings us to the current $36MM bond, dubbed “bare bones” by the District. Oddly, in what can best be described as an out of body experience, the Board inadvertently takes itself to task by declaring that the bond is needed to overcome years of neglect and lack of planning. It then takes itself off the hook by stating that “it doesn’t matter how we got here.” With all due respect, IT DOES MATTER. Why hasn’t there been a consistent maintenance, repair and replacement plan as there was from 1992-2007?
Once again the Board has orchestrated an enormous hoax, attempting to “backdoor” a yes vote by staging the vote smack in the middle of Holiday season, with the hope that no one will be paying much attention. We are expected to approve a bond with no clear direction, no long term plan, no real financial strategy and with the clear mandate from the state that we must downsize or risk being on our own financially. And in exactly the type of situation Santayana feared, it is likely that some of this bond will also not be eligible for aid. If we close buildings (or “repurpose” in Board speak) which the District admitted was a virtual certainty in its Feb 2015 presentation, the work on those buildings cannot qualify, just like last year.
“Trust us”, they proclaim. “We promise this time will be different…Santayana is wrong. We have told you everything. This bond will be the most above board bond in the history of the universe.” There are many good people in Clarkstown who want to believe them. They have adopted the catchy slogan- “roofs, heat, electric-the BASICS” and placed signs on their lawns, because they believe the Board will do exactly what it promised…and then the official proposition was published. This is the ONLY document that matters. The wording here is what the public is being asked to authorize:
- That the Board of Education of the Clarkstown Central School District, in the County of Rockland, New York (the “District”), is hereby authorized to construct infrastructure and other improvements to various District buildings, and to expend therefor (sic) an amount not to exceed $36,161,198: (b) that a tax is hereby voted in the amount of not to exceed $36,161,198 to finance such cost, such tax to be levied an collected in installments in such years and in such amounts the Board of Education shall determine; and (c) that in anticipation of said tax, bonds of the District are hereby authorized to be issued in the amount of not to exceed $36,161,198, and a tax is hereby voted to pay the interest on said bonds as the same shall be due and payable.
No mention of which schools will be repaired, projects undertaken, timelines to be followed. In essence, a $36,161,198 blank check for the District to allocate on projects at its discretion, on its timeframe. The average voter has virtually no idea as to the content of the proposition. And remember, this was the same Board that hid behind the language of the Congers proposition, telling people it was their fault if they didn’t read it carefully, as if it were the fine print on a sweepstakes ticket.
The supporters were quick to declare that the language is perfectly allowable…and they may very well be correct. But this is what happens when the public loses trust in the Board. After last year’s fiasco, people are rightfully hypersensitive. If the Board had respect for their constituents, it would have made sure that the document voted on was beyond “allowable”; that is was complete, open and fully honest. Would it have been so difficult to add the schools receiving boilers, roofs, and HVAC work, along with the projected timeline, to the proposition language? Is the board arrogant, or just tone deaf?
Add to the mix a lame duck superintendent, expired union contracts, and a Board that is selling this bond with the high pressure, hard sell tactics of a used car salesman and we have a clear and obvious solution. We need a time out. We need to put a stop to this runaway train of half truths, parsing of words and deceit. We must renounce the politics of fear and general disdain for the public. We must vote NO on this bond proposal. Not because we hate children, want our property values lower, or are too stupid to understand what’s good for us. Quite the opposite. We must demand better. Better representation on the Board. Better Superintendent choices. We must begin the process of a true, impartial and comprehensive evaluation of our district that results in a long term strategy that meets the needs of our community for the next 10 years. Only then should we go to the public and ask for their approval. Sadly, this bond does not come close to meeting those mandates.