Progress on the capital project efforts has continued this fall with the completion of preliminary submissions to the State Education Department (SED) for a review of state building aid for the project and Board of Education actions to advance the process. The current plan is for a capital project referendum in February.
A vote in February is based on coordinating the timing of the work with paying off existing debt – to avoid spikes in taxes – and so that critical health and safety work can be done and students can benefit from the space as soon as possible.
Assuming the SED review is complete and state aid for the project is confirmed, the Board of Education could vote to authorize the February referendum as soon as its Dec. 8 meeting.
The overall planning process has taken place over the last several years. It included substantial community and teacher involvement, the development of a District Program Vision, and enrollment and capacity studies. All of this work led up to the Board of Education’s decision last year that the district’s future grade-level configuration will be five, K-4 elementary schools and a grade 5-8 middle school program at two locations, with grades 5-6 at Van Antwerp and grades 7-8 at Iroquois.
A capital project proposal this year likely represents the first phase of a long-term investment in maintaining and improving school facilities. Based on the planning of the last several years, the focus is on enhancing programs, modernizing learning spaces and making regular health, safety and infrastructure improvements while keeping debt levels stable for taxpayers.
Enhancing the Middle School Program and Addressing Longstanding Facilities Needs
The district’s program vision calls for more project-based, hands-on learning and flexible spaces that can accommodate different group sizes and greater collaboration and use of technology. The program vision was a key factor in last year’s grade configuration decision. Moving to the new configuration requires additional classroom space and renovations at both Iroquois and Van Antwerp, which would be part of the first phase proposed this year.
Other priority areas for the first phase of capital improvements include:
- Outdoor athletic and physical education facility improvements at the high school that have been deferred or some time (For example, the high school is no longer able to host home track meets because of the condition of the track);
- Urgent and critical health & safety improvements, particularly at the elementary schools, including roofing work at Glencliff and Hillside schools.
- Correcting the no-longer-serviceable roof of the Hillside Avenue Bus Garage.
Investment Plan & Tax Impact
A guiding principle of the capital project planning process has been coordinating the timing of improvements with the retirement of existing debt so that the district can present voters with an option to improve and update facilities with no additional tax impact. The pending State Education Department review is critical because it will inform the district how much state aid is available and what potential work qualifies for aid and at what level.
Many facilities improvements that have been long deferred, such as site work (e.g. parking lots and roadways) and outdoor athletic improvements are not eligible for as much state aid as other types of work. As a result, a second proposition on the ballot that allows the district to address priority improvements such as the condition of school roadways and outdoor athletic facilities, will be considered.
Once the assessment of state aid is available, the Board of Education will be able to make decisions about the scope of work and what it will propose to voters.
Financing School Capital Projects
Generally, New York schools fund capital projects with state aid and local funds, which they typically borrow to spread the impact of the capital project over several years. Many districts, including Niskayuna, maintain a capital reserve, which is a dedicated savings fund for capital improvements. In fact, New York State Education Law Section 3651 provides that a capital reserve fund is to be used for purposes that require district borrowing, such as construction or bus purchases.
Use of the district’s capital reserve in the upcoming project is a major component of the district’s plan for the ballot proposition for capital improvements at no additional tax impact. The other factors are the replacing existing debt and state aid.
It is important to note that while debt service payments for long-term capital improvements are part of the district’s annual budget, they are separate from other aspects of the general fund budget in that they represent long-term investments and not annual operating costs. The district’s goal is to keep debt service as stable as possible. Delaying or deferring the planned capital improvements would not reduce this year’s or next year’s budget.
While a recent change to state law (Chapter 157 of the Laws of 2020) does allow districts to use reserve funds to cover COVID-19 expenses, the law also requires districts that do this must pay the money back into the reserve funds over a period of five years, with a reasonable amount of interest. The district has concluded that it would be irresponsible to divert funds saved for critical capital investments. Borrowing from the future in this manner would hurt efforts to maintain facilities as well as future operating budgets.
More Information is Coming
After decisions about the referendum are made, extensive information will be shared with the community leading up to the vote. Information will be shared on the district website, in mailings and at several community meetings (which are expected to be virtual.)
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