SWR ‘being held for ransom’ to proceed with track/technology proposition

02/06/2013 12:05 PM |
PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO  |  Jack Costas (Center) discusses the new requirements to have proposition construction worked approved by the state at Tuesday night's meeting.

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Jack Costas (center) discusses the new requirements to have construction worked approved by the state at Tuesday night’s meeting.

A voter-approved proposition to repair track facilities and install new technology at Shoreham-Wading River schools is in jeopardy.

That came to light at Tuesday night’s school board meeting, after the state education department informed the district the state would not allow planned construction to begin until the district spends more than $1.5 million to correct code violations at Shoreham-Wading River High School.

The $1.6 million track and tech proposition was passed by voters last fall and district administrators had hoped to get started on it this summer.

But new personnel at the education department have told the district that in order to have construction approved, the district must first rectify all the code violations at the high school — even those that have nothing to do with the scope of the proposition, said Superintendent Steven Cohen.

“It does reek of us being held for ransom,” said board member John Zukowski.

“Extortion is a better word for it,” replied Glen Arcuri, the district’s assistant superintendent of finance.

The state has identified dead-end corridors, lack of compliance with federal disability laws in bathrooms and signage, improper door closers and non-fire-rated doors in certain locations that must be fixed. These code violations had been grandfathered into the school, but now the state has come calling to have the issues fixed, Mr. Cohen said.

Until the district creates a plan to spend the additional $1,525,000 needed to fix the violations, the state will not allow any work to begin, Mr. Cohen said. Those funds will now have to be added to a proposition on building science labs and making roof repairs, scheduled for a vote this spring.

Residents will not see taxes rise because of the change since the proposition will be funded by state aid currently in district coffers that needs voter approval to be spent. But board members are still worried the higher price tag would make the proposition difficult to pass.

And if this spring’s proposition were to fail, the previously approved track and tech proposition wouldn’t get off the ground.

“We’re at [the state department of education’s] mercy,” said board member Jack Costas.

Board members fumed over what they said was a sudden about-face by the state that “blindsided” district administrators. The state never notified the district of the change in policy before encouraging local officials to make technology upgrades, frustrating board members.

The state had offered districts more state aid in exchange for approving technology upgrades to match upcoming state requirements by last year, school officials said.

“They pass unfunded mandates to require us to have technology for testing, we pass a proposition to give them that technology, and then they tell us, ‘You can’t build it,’ ” Mr. Zukowski said.

He suggested that the code violations be declared an “emergency repair,” meaning that the board could pull the funds directly from prior year state aid without getting voter approval, which might delay work on the approved proposition.

But Mr. Arcuri said that by calling the code violations “emergencies,” the board would be implying that the school is currently unsafe for students.

“That is a very slippery slope,” he said, adding that ligation would likely be required to fight the state on that designation.

Board members asked if the code violations couldn’t be addressed as part of maintenance for the current school year, but Mr. Arcuri said that because planned maintenance was already being deferred this year to pay for emergency security upgrades in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, there is little money left.

“I’m already stretching the ’12-’13 [budget] that I didn’t prepare for,” Mr. Arcuri said.

The board eventually decided to increase this spring’s proposition to $5,425,000 to pay for fixing the code violations, while also pursuing ways to fit the repairs into the 2013-14 school budget.

“In typical … fashion, they’ve dumped it on us without any time [for us] to think,” said board president William McGrath.

psquire@timesreview.com