East Rockaway school officials move forward with $27.7 million bond proposal

Community vote set for Nov. 14

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The East Rockaway Board of Education unanimously voted on Sept. 17 to adopt a $27.7 million bond referendum to fund repairs and upgrades at the district’s three schools.

The board also set Nov. 14 as the date for the vote on the bond, which, if passed, would fund several projects at Rhame and Centre Avenue elementary schools and East Rockaway Junior-Senior High School. The district would use $6.2 million in capital reserves to offset the cost of the work.

Projects that the bond would cover include:

—Raising of the high school’s athletic field and installation of a synthetic-turf field.

—New bleachers and a press box at the high school.

—Installation of about 750 feet of bulkhead to protect the fields from Mill River.

—Exterior masonry work at Centre Avenue.

—Renovation of art, science and family and consumer science classrooms at the high school.

—District-wide improvements to heating, ventilation, electrical and air-conditioning units.

—Alterations to the high school’s technology building to create four single restrooms for use during outdoor community and sporting events.

Officials have also outlined contingency projects if funds are left over, such as floor replacements in Centre Avenue’s all-purpose room.

“I think these are the most needed and responsible projects,” Schools Superintendent Lisa Ruiz said. “There were other projects that were considered, but unfortunately we couldn’t satisfy everyone’s desires and wants for the things that came up. . . . This really is an important development for our community.”

Jacqueline Scrio, the district's assistant superintendent of finance and operations, said that the cost to a homeowner with an average assessed value for the proposed bond would be $251. "This calculation is strictly for the projects that will be included in the 2019 bond, and does not take into account the debt service that is retiring," she said. If the bond wasn't approved, the average homeowner would see a decrease of $140 annually through 2021-22, and $71 in 2023-24. 

School officials originally mulled a $30.5 million bond then reduced the total amount by $2.8 million, to the current $27.7 million, and said that the tax impact of the new proposal would be reduced as well. 

Officials also noted that an $18.7 million bond that the district floated in 2005 was set to expire in 2021-22, at the same time that the new bond, if passed, would take effect. Residents thus would not pay significantly more for the new bond than they do now for the current one.

The planning process

District architect John Grillo presented plans at the Sept. 17 school board meeting, while Rick Ganci, the executive vice president and principal of Capital Markets Advisors, discussed the project’s financing.

A facilities committee generated consensus recommendations for long-term improvements to the facilities, while emphasizing educational benefits, security, financial feasibility and community values. The committee comprised community members, Board of Education trustees, teachers, administrators and Grillo.

The committee took part in a building conditions study, walked through each facility, reviewed options for renovations and upgrades, and compiled a list of potential projects and their costs. It met six times between February and June 2018, hosted a series of public work sessions with the community to discuss potential projects and then entered a review period before approving them. The committee initially proposed the nearly $30.5 million bond, but scaled back on some projects based on public feedback.

Living with the bay

The bond’s financial impact on taxpayers would depend, in part, on the potential financial help the district received from the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery for the Living with the Bay initiative. LWTB is a state project, undertaken after Hurricane Sandy, to improve storm resiliency along Mill River, which runs from Hempstead Lake south to Hewlett Bay.

The LWTB project at East Rockaway High would see a bulkhead constructed on school property where it meets Mill River, along with drainage pipes that would run under the athletic fields. The bulkhead, officials said, would reduce flooding in major storms like Sandy.

The district had initially reached an agreement with GOSR to install a Greenway Project, which would include a path for walking and biking from Hempstead Lake State Park through the Village of East Rockaway and behind the high school, on district property.

The LWTB plans have been under discussion since 2016, but school officials have balked at including the Greenway Project, after residents raised security concerns over giving anyone access to school grounds. While talks have stalled, Grillo said the bulkhead needs to be installed as soon as possible.

“Over the years, Mill River has completely changed and gotten closer and closer,” he said. “After Hurricane Sandy, the erosion accelerated, and now we’re at the point where we’re at the shoreline.”

GOSR is considering whether to pay for the Living with the Bay portion of the bonded project, which would cover the bulkheading and drainage pipes under the playing field. If the state were to provide the $2.6 million for that part of the project, local taxpayers would pay nothing additional. If it did not, however, the cost for the average home would be $41 per year.

Emily Thompson, GOSR’s acting general counsel and chief external affairs officer, said in March that the LWTB project was under review, but she did not say when representatives would meet with officials and community members.

“The resiliency improvements at East Rockaway High School will protect the school and residents from flooding, defend the shoreline from erosion and foster community engagement along the river,” Thompson said. “GOSR looks forward to presenting the specific improvements to the community in the coming months.”

If the bond passes

If voters approve the bond, plans will be submitted for review to the State Education Department between November and next June. The bid and award phase are tentatively planned for April 2020 through March 2021, and construction is set for July 2020 through September 2022, pending state approval and weather conditions.

“We are excited to present this to you,” Board of Education President Keith Gamache said at last week’s meeting. “We will work as closely as we possibly can with GOSR and Living with the Bay for as long as we possibly can to try and get that additional funding.”