Simms: School board gets ‘A’ in sloganeering, ‘F’ in governance

05/17/2014 8:00 AM |

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‘ONLY WHAT’S NEEDED. NOTHING MORE’

Last spring, a neighbor brought me to a meeting with RCSD administrators focusing on the high school capital plan.  He’s a design professional, and his concern was simple: the new façade and front entry—the centerpiece—made little sense. 

A lot of money was being spent on a completely generic grand entrance which neither performed any function, nor said anything special about our community.

To make his point, he spread out a handful of school façade plans recently designed by the same firm.  All had similar flying buttresses (non-structural, just for effect), lots of funky geometric glass walls, and identical signage.  Change the names and you couldn’t tell which Long Island town you were in.  It was impossible not to get the impression that ours was a cookie-cutter design, pulled from the file and labeled “Riverhead.”

Not a complainer, what this designer offered was an alternative approach, volunteering his and others’ services to modify the look—but not the function—of the high school entry, with options that would visually communicate Riverhead while significantly reducing cost.  The response from school officials?  “You’re too late.”

My own approach, rooted in the great district slogan “Only what’s needed. Nothing more,” was to peel away the superfluous design elements so we’d at least know what percent of construction costs they represented.  More significantly, I wanted to look at the increased operating costs the school would be stuck with every year.

My commercial construction expertise is more on the mechanical than the design side.  I focused on the fact that the entry would be not only more expensive to build, but more expensive to maintain, essentially functioning as a huge solarium with high cooling demands.  Finding no answer in the meeting, I reviewed afterward the construction cost estimates the board used to calculate the size of the bond issue.

As I told administrators: “The cost of certain non-functional elements of the present design—both to build, and to operate— are obscure, and may be very high.”  And: “What I’m willing to wager is that no one has run the numbers to be able to tell you, or anyone on the school board, just how costly some of these design features are.”  (Read the full letter below.)

Like my neighbor, I don’t criticize without offering solutions.  I suggested a simple, no-cost process to examine and value-engineer certain elements of the high school design.  The response?  “You’re too late.”

Being told we were rigidly locked into a conceptual design presented two years earlier was particularly frustrating for me, as half the projects my company supplies are for federal agencies with well-known acronyms, using a construction bidding process at least as stringent as that of the state education department.  The idea that no cost-saving measures or performance enhancements — made possible by new technologies, advanced materials, or simply more thoughtful design —can even be considered is silly; it’s done all the time.

“Only what’s needed. Nothing more.”  A catchy political slogan, but empty rhetoric.  The worst part isn’t that administrators and board members have no facts to show that it’s honest;  rather, it’s that they’ve shown no interest in determining what is really needed.

LISTENING WITHOUT HEARING

Where, you might ask, was my friend — the design professional — at a time when his concerns and suggestions might have been more readily addressed during the CPR (Community Partnership for Revitalization) process?  The answer is: right in the thick of it, an outspoken contributor from the start.

What I’ve heard from several residents who participated on the CPR team is very consistent:  a) The group was far too heavily loaded with district employees;  b) It seemed at times to be a process organized just for show, so the district could claim to have worked hand-in-hand with the community.

Suggestions once presented were never revisited. No decisions were made. There was never any feedback. CPR was a black hole into which ideas were tossed so they would quietly expire.

That’s what I experienced, as well. But it went further.  The senior administrators I’ve dealt with are unfailingly polite and respectful, but their answers are simply non-responsive.  When asked for specifics on energy requirements to sustain the new addition, they instead offer wholly unsubstantiated blanket statements that “the design is very green.”  More empty rhetoric.

Six months later, further questions about heating/cooling cost brought the reply that these could not be estimated but the district recently completed a program to improve lighting efficiency.  Not useful.

Last summer, I FOILed to learn what the district had been told by its design professionals.  Beyond the highly generalized budget figures (e.g. $315 per square foot), I wanted to see details including the cost of mechanical systems for the new space, anticipated operating costs for this space, and any value engineering requests and submittals for any bond-related work.  (Read the FOIL request below.)

According to the FOIL production, the district had no estimate of mechanical costs, no estimate of operating costs, and no value engineering had been done since the bond work was approved.

It’s certain that somewhere, in some subcontractor’s office, a mechanical engineer calculated solar loads for the high school solarium/lobby, figuring out how many tons of cooling it will require and what that will cost to furnish and install.  It’s obvious that the same engineer could and should calculate what that equipment would cost to operate.

Why doesn’t the district have this information?  Why does no administrator or board member seem to care?  Why is no one looking to reduce costs and/or improve performance?  Why is there such little oversight on spending of $100 million?

A PROBABLY UNSUSTAINABLE BUDGET

Why just probably?  Because the district won’t release enough information to allow interested voters to draw conclusions.  Two weeks ago, I asked the appropriate assistant superintendent for specific details, as well as historical data, on the budget.  Nothing special, just copies of a few existing documents.  He agreed and said he’d get back to me.

A week later, I heard from the superintendent, instead: the spreadsheet I’d requested wouldn’t be shared — I could see only the picture of it posted on the district website.  No reason was given.

The response to my request for historic data — I wanted to track spending trends over five years, rather than the two years shown on the website—was even more disappointing.

First, I was given budget reports going back only to 2013, and was told “data from previous years is not readily available due to a change in administration.”  I find that difficult to fathom, but was unable to determine what happened or why.

Second, the data provided turned out to be just a summary of the data I sought, with less detail by an order of magnitude.  The spending budget the district published this year can be found below.

If you want to look at the exact same budget from prior years for perspective, it’s not available.

The current budget raises some important questions, but it’s tough to form opinions with so little information.  Two things, though, are indisputably clear:  a) We’ll be paying millions each year in debt service on the money we borrowed for our current construction projects;  b) We came in under the tax cap this year not by good planning or frugal administration, but thanks to an “extra” $1.4 million gift from the governor, which brings us to a level of state aid that some pundits think cannot continue.

From the evidence available, we have no contingency plan.  And if we lose just that extra state funding, what will get cut? Debt payments?  Utilities?  Of course not. We’ll lose $1.4 million of teachers and programs.

We need new thinking and better planning.  From what I’ve seen, any time board members are asked to consider a new idea, they’ve heard it before and it won’t work.  What we really need on the school board are open and creative minds.

WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT

At a recent hamlet meeting to present the budget and the candidates, I asked an incumbent this question: “Do you, or does any current board member, have the knowledge and experience required to plan and manage a $100 million capital spending program?”

The reply: “I don’t know.”

To be fair, I did not expect a positive response.  I’ve served on volunteer boards, and no member is ever competent in all areas of import.  The more specialized and technical the issue, the less equipped most members will be to render decisions.

That’s why the right response is usually: “I don’t have that expertise, but I know how to get answers from people that do.”

We don’t elect school board members individually to deal with items in which they have either personal expertise (accounting, law, construction, teaching, personnel) or special interests (athletics, arts, curriculum design).  In fact, each school board member is a fiduciary, individually responsible and accountable for making the best decisions he or she can make, on every issue before the board.

If board members blindly defer to a board officer, or to district administrators, they’re not performing their fiduciary duty.  And if board officers and administrators defer, in turn, to the professionals they’ve hired — at least some of whose financial interests may conflict with those of the taxpayers — then they’re not doing their jobs, either.

When it comes to spending more than $100 million in community funds to renovate and expand our schools, it seems that no one is sufficiently engaged in construction planning and implementation to safeguard our interests.  No one challenges.  No one asks tough questions.  Judging from school board meetings, one has to wonder whether any of them ask questions at all.

To be clear — I’ve heard good things about our schools academically, and have no reason to question the dedication and competence of administrators on that front.  There’s reason to doubt, however, that anyone on staff has either the experience or the training necessary to effectively and efficiently plan and implement a huge capital project.

Back to our school board members—when faced with issues they don’t understand, it’s incumbent on them to ask questions until they do. When matters require special expertise, it’s incumbent on them to find it.

While board members and administrators have the resources to hire consultants, a logical place for them to turn first for help is to members of the community who possess the requisite specialized expertise on the issues at hand.  Locals always have a vested interest in enhancing the reputation of district schools, as well as in keeping taxes low, and they’ll almost always consult for free.

It’s not happening here. Offers of help are rejected, as are warnings of construction waste and unnecessary expense ahead.  The party line is: “We committed to this program years ago, we’re certain everything’s being done correctly even though we don’t know details, and no improvements are possible.”

Taxpayers deserve better.

THE CHALLENGERS

Laurie Downs, Greg Fischer, and Lori Hulse (listed alphabetically) are not running as a slate. They have different priorities, different experience and skills, and different views on many things.  Do I agree with all the points in each of their platforms?  No, but I recognize that they have in common a commitment to change the culture of the school board, something that no member can accomplish alone.

Voting in three challengers will have a much bigger positive impact than just their three votes;  it will send an unmistakable message to the rest of the board that “business as usual” isn’t good enough.  We expect them to work harder, to speak candidly, to plan for the fiscal bumps in the road we know are coming, and to start hearing— and responding—to the voices of taxpayers and parents.

And, we expect them to conduct the business of the district, excepting personnel and legal matters, in public view.

PLEASE VOTE, TELL A FRIEND

Years ago, the editor of this paper told me he found it remarkable that so much political controversy, action, and noise surrounds the Town Board and all its activities, while the school board spends much more of our money, with much less oversight. Yet few taxpayers seem to notice or care.

He was right.

Turnout in school elections is scandalously low, and this year promises to be no better (at the presentation in my hamlet, we had more candidates and administrators than we did voters).  Make no mistake: there’s a direct correlation between voter participation and board accountability — the less we show up, the less board members care what we think.  Our apathy empowers authoritarian action by the board.

This year, send the message that you care.

Simms_headshotLarry Simms owns a home in South Jamesport and is a director of savemainroad.org, an advocacy group dedicated to preserving the character of the Main Road corridor and surrounding areas.

RCSD Re HS Construction June 14, 2013

Rcsd Foil August 7, 2013

RCSD Spending Fiscal 2015