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Public reacts to school bond plan

Baldwin residents say they’re concerned about a tax increase

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More than two dozen community members filled the Baldwin School District office’s Professional Learning Lab on Jan. 21 to share their concerns about the district’s proposed multi-year capital improvement plan, which is to be voted on later this winter. Many residents said they did not want to see a property-tax increase.

On March 18 they will vote on a $158 million bond that would fund the proposed district-wide project, titled Innovation 2020. The vote will be held from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. at the high school, at 841 Ethel T. Kloberg Drive. 

“I’ve talked to probably 15 of my neighbors. None of them understand this,” Baldwin resident Elizabeth Douje said. “They don’t know what the value of this project is, they don’t know what to make out of this. [The flyer] does not tell our residents the cost of this project. If it’s a $158 million bond, there’s nothing on here that states [that] to anyone. We have senior citizens that cannot come out to these meetings.”

“It’s a way for you to come and hear the presentation, because simple cost does not do it justice,” District Superintendent Dr. Shari Camhi responded. 

“Our neighborhood has suffered enough,” Douje said. “You drive down Grand Avenue, you don’t see what you’re paying . . . I think this is being rushed. There’s not enough information given out to the public. We’re talking about March 18 for a vote where people are facing so much at home and need to know how to budget for this.” 

The district-wide renovation ideas stemmed from a state-mandated Building Conditions Survey as well as Community Input Night in 2016, when more than 100 local residents shared their thoughts on what they would like to see next to improve school facilities.

Additionally, nearly 400 people offered feedback via ThoughtExchange, an online platform. Residents also shared their thoughts at various school board and community meetings last year.

Community members said they would like to see:

Air conditioning.

New and renovated restrooms.

A performing arts center.

New auditoriums.

Redesigned elementary classrooms.

A new media center to replace the high school library.

New athletics facilities.

Early renderings were presented at school board meetings. 

Camhi said that another edition of Baldwin Beat, the school newsletter, would be sent to residents with more specific information.

“We’re doing everything, not only that we are required to do, but I dare say that we have gotten more input from this community than any other community that certainly I have ever been involved with when I see bond issues passed,” she said. “The point I want to make is that this is about the kids and the students of Baldwin. That is our obligation — to make sure they have what they need and what is important to them at the same time that we’re doing it in such a way that is sensitive to the needs of the community.” 

School officials worked with architects and consultants to review the assessed values of all the homes in Baldwin and determine that homeowners would pay an average of $27.81 per month, or roughly $334 per year, for the 20-year bond. 

Anya C., a Freeport resident, asked if the bond is tied to homes’ assessed values, and when the project would begin.

“It fluctuates,” Camhi said. “If your assessed values go down, [the tax] goes down. If they go up, [it goes] up. We have no control whatsoever of assessed values and the way the county does that.”  

Camhi said if the project is approved, the district would right away submit required paperwork to the State Education Department. 

“Any work that we have to do has to be approved by state ed,” she said. “We hope to break ground in the summer of 2021.”

Besides the bond, funding for the project would come from the Smart Schools Bond Initiative — the Baldwin district was allocated $2.6 million — a capital reserve fund, the yearly school budget and legislative grants. 

“I was on the board when we did other bonds,” said Trustee Mary Jo O’Hagan, “and I can tell you that the conversation was ongoing over time, even after the bonds passed. We had conversations practically every meeting about taking input from community members, people who offered suggestions, tweaking designs, adding things, switching things around a little bit. . . . There will be plenty of opportunity for community members to have conversations about the particulars — the look and feel of it.” 

Lifelong Baldwin resident Ralph Rose said he has no problem with Americans with Disabilities Act upgrades and other renovations, but that he opposes installing air conditioning and making certain athletics upgrades. 

“The tax base in Baldwin is unbelievable,” Rose said. “If it’s [$158 million] for all that, I would like to see maybe the school board reanalyze without the air conditioning this time and maybe cut back. I’m going to tell you right now, I’m almost paying $11,000 — almost $8,000 for school tax … The Town of Hempstead and the county can run the cops and everything else on my $4,000, $3,000. Why can’t the school work within the $7,800 I give them now?”  

Paul Lizio, who owns an auto body shop in town, asked what percentage of the bond would be funded by business owners, to which Dr. James Robinson, assistant superintendent of business and administrative services, said 9 percent. Lizio said he pays about $38,000 in taxes, with the school taxes comprising about $24,000. 

“When we go to vote on March 18, we’re either voting it up or down as a whole?” resident Melissa Desravines asked. 

Camhi said yes. Desravines inquired about an opportunity to separate the needs versus the wants when it comes to district renovations. Camhi said the original list was longer and narrowed down to what school officials believed was necessary. 

“Some of the things, obviously, we would want to do within our schools to ensure that our students are getting the best experience and providing the best environment that we can,” Desravines said, “but some of the other things seem to be a little luxury.” 

She asked about considerations of a “step-back” budget “to make it a little more practical, and to have the residents be a little more amenable to it.” 

“We’re all residents of Baldwin, and year over year, depending on where you live, if you live in the harbor or whatever, your taxes are going up,” Desravines said. “How do we manage the expectations while preparing for our future and keeping our children in mind — how do we live today to ensure that we’re still around to be able to provide for the future if we just keep taking from the same well?”