Sunday, December 28, 2008

To Plan or Not To Plan!

To plan or not to plan is not really the question. Of course we should plan! But, it strikes me as problematic that both our town and school district are having such a difficult time answering simple questions about what exactly they are planning and specifically how they are paying for it all.

Amid the ethics questions raised about Ken Wishnick’s new job as Town Planner, the question of precisely what the job will actually entail has been lost. As reported in the New Paltz Times, Mr. Wishnick himself is not really sure what the position involves. While the town has already approved this new position in the budget, and a civil service job description has been written, Wishnick states, “the town board will decide the role of the town planner and it has not yet done so.” How can this be so?

The town is not the only local elected body lacking a clear articulation of what a planner could do for them/us. The school district is considering hiring a consultant to create a long-term plan. I don’t mean to sound cute, but what exactly are we planning? We have a building inventory, and we have a forthcoming educational learning plan to be constructed by the superintendent. Is this long term planning a synthesis of these two documents? Or is it more? We need additional information about what a consultant will provide: Does this involve data that has already been compiled and/or that could clearly be assembled by existing staff? What existing studies (that are sitting on a shelf or otherwise) will be integrated into this planning? How come the superintendent and her staff are not assigned the task of conducting this type of planning? And what will a paid consultant value-add to this planning process, exactly?

There are a few things on this topic I feel pretty strongly about: One, I am concerned about shipping this job out to someone external to the inner workings of the district and our community. If this process is to move forward, we need to be clear, those that are most intimate with the data, that is, the teachers, staff, parents, and the community, must play an integral role. Perhaps the volunteer Building Level School Climate Action Teams, whose task will be completed in February, would be willing to stay on and work on this project. Given the state of the economy, any tasks that can be completed by current staff or volunteers should be done so in house (so to speak). Further, while the district plans, so does the Village and Town of New Paltz and the rest of the towns that are included in the district. Any planning project needs to include input and collaboration with these local municipalities.

Second, we need better projections for our school age population. In the board’s pamphlet handed out at the Middle School forums last winter, there is chart of the projections from 2008 to 2070 which show (within the margin of error) a tiny decline in student population and reads,

“The district has conducted multiple* demographic studies, which have revealed varied statistics. After careful examination and comparison of the various studies against actual figures, enrollment is projected to be approximately 2,200 to 2,300 students annually in the next five years.”

I would like to see a very simple, straightforward analysis of the projections of the school age population for at least the last ten years to see if the current source(s) for this information is reliable. As a parent of kindergarteners in 2005 and 2008, I am highly skeptical that the current sources are dependable. In 2005, kindergarteners found themselves in classrooms of 24-26 students because the estimates were off. This past May, an additional kindergarten class was added to the expected number for this past September when pre-registration showed the estimates to be low. In August, an additional third grade class was added at the very, very, very last minute (for the earlier cohort of 2005 kindergartens) because of the inaccuracy of the projections. As Yogi Berra said, “Prediction is hard, especially about the future.” But I think we can do a better job. And, we need reliable data in order to move forward with a comprehensive plan.

Third, the Middle School location is non-negotiable. As reported in the New Paltz Times on December 11th, school board member Don Kerr, while supportive of hiring a consultant, was concerned with the time frame. If the study is to take eighteen months, “…what if the planner’s final report contradicted their decision to renovate the middle school? Kerr said he did not like that possibility.” Nor do I. Any district wide planning needs to be crystal-clear, the Middle School is staying put – this issue is absolutely not on the table. Last winter, our community (including the Village Boards and Town Boards) came out in full force to let the school board know that the Middle School – not just any one of our schools, but the Middle School – is to stay put. There is no wiggle room. (And the study needs to take a lot less time than eighteen months. As my dad use to say, “While you plan, it happens.”)

However, there are implications for the future of the Middle School site that impact the wider district. Two obvious ones are the location of the kitchen (there is only one kitchen that actually is suited to cook food, the rest merely distribute food, and the cooking kitchen is currently at the Middle School) and the old district office of which I don’t even know is possible to renovate and perhaps needs to be leveled. At the September meeting where Rhinebeck Associates, the firm hired to evaluate the Middle School, presented their work to date before the board, the firm was clear that they are only looking at the Middle School, not at the district as a whole. Is this a logical way to proceed? I am not sure, nonetheless I am not open to a process that will impede the guarantee of the Middle School staying put, along with the planning dollars promised to the endeavor. The Middle School is actually the only project even close to shovel-ready given the work already done by Rhinebeck Associates, which means we should be moving faster and focusing more on the Middle School since it is the only site realistically available for potential Obama stimulus dollars in the next year.

Which leads to my last point: Given the state budget cuts, how much money are we talking about and where will the district get the money for this service? It is my understanding that the money is proposed to be taken from a budget line that has been unmistakably allocated for study of the Middle School renovation, including an assessment of both the current status of the facilities and how to implement the actual renovation. It is unacceptable to use these dollars for different purposes. From the district website, the results of the vote to focus on the renovation of the Middle School are recapped:

“Passing the resolution means the Board will move ahead to flesh out the specifics of a plan to renovate and reconstruct portions of the Middle School using the latest “green” and energy-efficient technologies. The Board will engage professional architectural, engineering, and surveying firms to provide detailed plans and costs* that will be shared with the community as the discussion moves forward.”

While only a portion of this budget line has been spent so far, that is, the initial fact finding portion: the state of the facilities, it is the only part that has been completed, and has not even been reported to the public yet. (FYI – scheduled for February 18th .) The remaining dollars are for the remaining stages – not just current status but implementation. Implementation dollars for the Middle School project should not and cannot be pilfered from this budget line.

If you would like the school board to hear your opinions on this matter, please attend their next meeting on January 7th, 7pm at the high school.

* Emphasis added

Relevant links: blog about the New Paltz Middle School


Don Kerr said...

Thank you for an intelligent and insightful analysis. The school board welcomes gadflys and the full spectrum of inpuit from the community.

Our 1/7 meeting will include a discussion of ideas about increasing revenue to the school district as a means to stave off cuts in next years budget. Public input on the topic would be appreciated,

Anonymous said...

Some one has to care enough to monitor these things. Earlier, had Gadflies not been on top of the situation, how would we the parents and taxpayers of NP have known that a 'sewage renovation' plan that looked an awful lot like a local kickback was going to go forward without the benefit of a review? (let's hope my memory is serving me on this one - I read the emails, was duly horrifid, wrote and signed as such and then hit the delete button on my over-subscribed memory). I haven't made up my mind whether some of the powers that be in New Paltz are a little naive and inexperienced with these processes, or whether there is a network of thse who benefit from keeping things a little cloudy (I'd like to think not) or a mixture of both. I agre with the Gadfly that the Middle School location is not negotiable and I am sure I am not the only parent who will go Wagnerian should this point resurface for contention. We all need to be involved, and kudos to the Gadfly for the research and thoroughness that goes into examination of the issues that matter to parents and taxpayers and citizens.