New plan to renovate Riverhead schools comes in at $80 million

VERA CHINESE PHOTO | Representatives from BBS Architects and Engineers presented an $80 million plan to fix Riverhead schools.

Riverhead taxpayers served up a big fat “no” last time, but they might be asked again later this year to allow the school district to borrow millions to upgrade overcrowded buildings, some of which need structural repairs.

The district may ask for permission to borrow up to $80.2 million, nearly $43 million less than the $123 million bond proposal voters rejected last year.

That’s the plan unveiled last week by the district’s Community Partnership for Revitalization team, a group of teachers, administrators and residents charged with preparing a new building improvement proposal. If the school board goes ahead with the plan, officials predict a vote would take place this fall.

District superintendent Nancy Carney and representatives from BBS Architects and Engineers of Patchogue presented total estimated figures for the capital improvement project during the committee’s monthly meeting last Wednesday night.
It was the first time all the numbers were presented publicly.

The plan calls for $80.2 million in spending, down from the $93 million architects first said a scaled-down version of the rejected plan would cost. Representatives from the firm insisted they were able to lower the cost without taking away any projects included in the $93 million plan.

“The only way we can come down from here is by taking away,” Ms. Carney said of the scaled back proposal when she addressed the committee and members of the public last week.

State Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) said the bond would most likely not be affected by the proposed 2 percent cap on annual tax levy increases, a measure that is expected to be passed into law in Albany later this year.

“It would be the only exception to pierce the cap,” he said, noting that the cap could be overridden by a super-majority of taxpayers.

He said the biggest obstacle the school district faces in getting the bond approved is the taxpayers.

“[The school district] would have to sell the Riverhead taxpayer on whether this is a good thing,” Mr. LaValle said. “If a person has $100 in their checking account and you’re telling them to write a check for $110, they don’t have the money.”

Mr. LaValle also said the Senate is exploring reforms to the Wicks Law, which requires local governments performing projects costing more than $50,000 to seek competitive bids from plumbing, electrical and HVAC contractors in addition to the general contractor. He called the Wicks changes, which could save money, a form of mandate relief.

If district officials hope to pass the plan, they will have to convince adamant critics like retiree Hal Lindstrom of Calverton. When the previous bond was being considered last year, Mr. Lindstrom printed 1,000 fliers pointing out what he thought were deficiencies in the plan and distributed those fliers to local residents, especially senior citizens.

He said this time around, he would be against any spending increase, especially if a plan called for building additions to the district’s existing schools.

“It seems that people in the school system feel that the taxpayers have an endless supply of money,” he said. “I just think the timing is wrong with the economy being so bad.”

Included in the plans are building new classrooms at Roanoke Aveneue Elementary, Riley Avenue Elementary and the middle school; a new cafeteria at Pulaski Street School; and a new kitchen at Aquebogue Elementary. The plan also calls for $35 million in upgrades to the high school, which would feature a new home and careers classroom and weight room, according to a copy of the blueprints obtained by the News-Review. Those plans were last updated March 2, so the price tags may have changed.

Not included in the plan, however, are $2.2 million in upgrades the committee defined as “wants,” such as security cameras at some district schools, repairs to the high school parking lot and replacing spotlights at the middle school.

The new plan also does not call for shutting down Roanoke Avenue Elementary school and reopening it as administrative offices, as was planned under the first bond proposal rejected last year. That bill would have been paid for with taxpayer money over 23 years.

The 35 revitalization team members who attended last Wednesday’s meeting did not agree on how to deal with the deteriorating roof at the district’s Osborn Avenue bus barn. One idea has been to put a separate $2.8 million bonding proposition on the ballot for money to renovate that building, including the roof. Another option has been building another facility somewhere else and using the space where the buses are now kept for athletic fields.

“The current bus garage is in really bad shape,” Ms. Carney said. “[But] if ultimately we don’t want it there, then I don’t want to throw $2 million at it.”

Many in attendance agreed the building is an eyesore.

“It would bring such continuity to the whole property,” school board member Amelia Lantz said of razing the garage and building another one elsewhere.

The committee is scheduled to meet again May 19 at 6:30 p.m. at Riverhead High School.

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