Editorial: Spreading the pain over 22 years makes cents

COURTESY PHOTO | An artist's rendering of what the facade of Riverhead High School would look like should voters approve a $78.3 million for repairs and upgrades.

Riverhead’s public schools, some of which are embarrassingly overcrowded, are sorely in need of upgrades and repairs. And the school board, while recognizing a critical mass of big-ticket items that need addressing now, is asking voters to approve a $78.3 million bond to do the work. The money would be paid back over about 22 years.

The plan is controversial, mainly because the price tag frightens and even angers people. But like buying $1 frozen pizzas individually from Family Dollar instead of picking up a 24-pack at Costco for $15, rejecting the bond because of its up-front price tag while doing the work piecemeal doesn’t make long-term financial sense. Needed repairs left unattended only lead to much bigger problems, never mind the astronomical and ever-rising costs of cooling and heating buildings with outdated roofs, windows and furnaces.

Yes, financial prudence and responsibility should be at the forefront of our minds. Not borrowing the money now, especially with interest rates at historic lows, will end up costing taxpayers more in the years to come. Maybe sooner rather than later, depending on what goes wrong with which building next and how the repairs are paid for.

Taxpayers should undoubtedly vote in favor of Proposition 1 on Tuesday, Oct. 11.

Yet the fate of this controversial bond is most uncertain. And if this important measure fails, we implore Riverhead school officials to look to themselves — and not blame the taxpayers.
There is a trust deficit between residents and a school board whose president recently told the News-Review matter-of-factly that members often discussed plans for the first $123 million bond behind closed doors in executive sessions — a clear and utter violation of the state’s Open Meetings Law. (See Public Officers Law, Article 7, Section 105.)

But it doesn’t seem the board has since turned over a new leaf. Even though school officials often boasted about public involvement with the Community Partnership for Revitalization committee, which helped hammer out this new bond plan after the first one was rejected in 2010, this same school board in July refused to publicize the names of 13 candidates who filed applications to fill an empty board seat that was vacated mid-term. The public didn’t find out who these candidates were until after the board appointed one of them. To what end was this information kept secret? One can only guess. And not everyone’s guesses are flattering to the board and its president.

That brings us to one more big decision reached behind closed doors.

In July, school board members marched into a public meeting and announced that two bond proposals would be on the Oct. 11 ballot. Proposition 2 will ask voters to approve building a new $7 million gymnasium at the high school. This deal was clearly reached in executive session after two members publicly said they wanted to see the gym added to the larger bond plan, with others disagreeing. A new gymnasium was not a CPR committee recommendation and the state will not help fund its construction.

Proposition 2 should be rejected by voters.

Voting will be held Tuesday, Oct. 11, at Riley Avenue, Phillips Avenue and Aquebogue elementary schools, as well as Riverhead High School, from 6 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Don’t know where you should vote? Call 369-6708 or 369-6711.