The Niagara Falls School District is holding a referendum Sept. 25 for voters to decide whether the district should make certain capital improvements to their 11 campuses at, in effect, state taxpayers' expense.
Sixty percent of voters, a "super majority," have to agree to get the state money.
Since the district has to borrow first, through bonds, then get state reimbursement, local voters' permission is required. Niagara Falls qualifies to receive 100 percent state reimbursement, because the district is designated as a poverty and "special needs' district.
The school district tried a similar referendum last year, seeking not only capital improvements but larger classrooms and state-of-the-art technology, again at 100 percent state taxpayers' cost. They lost by about 250 votes. Less than 10 percent of registered voters voted in that referendum.
The district has downsized its latest request from $130 million to about $70 million, planning to do only renovations they say are essential.
Niagara Falls School Superintendent Cynthia Bianco said, "Just like your house and my house, continuous maintenance is needed."
One of the arguments used to defeat last year's referendum was that Niagara Falls voters are state taxpayers too, and some thought they could save state taxes by voting no.
If you take a minute to review these statistics, you might see how foolish that argument is: 19,465,197 people live in New York state, and 50,151 people live in Niagara Falls, less than one-quarter of 1 percent of the state's population. If state taxation is taxed approximately evenly throughout the state, if the new $70 million referendum passes, for every hundred dollars invested in Niagara Falls schools, New York state taxpayers living outside Niagara Falls will contribute $99.74, and state taxpayers living in Niagara Falls will contribute 26 cents.
Out of $70 million, state taxpayers -- for instance, living in New York City -- will pay approximately $29 million to fix up Niagara Falls schools. Rochester will pay $756,000. Buffalo will pay $900,000. All told, state taxpayers (living outside of Niagara Falls) will pay $69,820,192, and state taxpayers living in Niagara Falls will pay about $179,808 of the $70 million the state will reimburse Niagara Falls to renovate its schools.
If all or even a small fraction of the planned renovations are indeed required, then the alternative is, if the state does not pay for it, local property owners will pay for it through an increase in school taxes.
Niagara Falls is the only city I ever heard of that declined state aid to fix up their schools.
Of course, you might argue, we are playing right into big government tax-and-spend policies. Sure, it would be better if all the people of this community got together like an Amish barn-building party, and came with roofing material and plumbing, ceiling tiles and paint, and worked together as volunteers.
If we were a sane society, that is what we would do. We would fix our schools ourselves, brick by brick. Instead of $70 million, it might be done for half or less, and maybe -- tapping all the talents of the people of this district -- done better.
But so far from sanity have we come with our government, and how government does things, that it would probably be illegal for volunteers to fix up our schools.
This referendum, therefore, is perhaps the intelligent remedy.
In an interview with Mark Laurrie, chief educational administrator for the district; Earl Smeal, energy manager and assistant capital projects manager; and David D. Spacone, assistant supervisor for operations management, the Niagara Falls Reporter attempted to answer this question: Is the work necessary?
The Reporter was told there are 430 different improvements to the 11 schools and central office contemplated. While there isn't space to list all these, the big ticket items are informative:
Harry F. Abbott Elementary, 1625 Lockport St. Built 1972.
Roof replacement, auditorium update to become ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) accessible, replace rooftop HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) and air handler units to classrooms and office.
Mr. Smeal reminded voters that maintenance teams are expending a lot of manpower trying to keep kids and teachers warm with an antiquated heating system. The cost of maintenance is coming out of the district's general fund.
The state will fund the replacement of the old units with energy-efficient ones that will reduce utility costs, make students more comfortable, and save on manpower needed to repair the old systems.
LaSalle Prep School, 7420 Buffalo Ave. Built around 1930.
Roof replacement, auditorium ADA compliant, locker rooms (boys and girls) replacement, tear off and replace parking lot.
Mr. Spacone said LaSalle has the oldest roof in the district.
"It is a weekly task where we are sending men up there to repair and patch the roof," he said.
The district has done patch work on the parking lot to keep it safe, but it needs to be replaced, according to Mr. Spacone. Like the roof, the state will pay (through this referendum) for a new parking lot, but won't pay for patching.
The locker rooms, now 80 years old, will be updated with new fixtures, changing areas, showers, restrooms and lockers.
Henry J. Kalfas Magnet School, 1800 Beech Ave. Built in the early 1950s.
New hot water system, new ceilings throughout the building. Currently there are two 60-year-old forced-hot air furnaces that, according to Mr. Smeal, are unable to distribute heat evenly. The air vent system is original. A new energy-efficient hot-water heating system and a cooling system in order that the school can be a year-round facility will be installed and are expected to make classrooms more comfortable.
Currently there are original, open perforated-metal ceilings.
Mr. Spacone explained, "By simply dropping the ceiling, you decrease the cubic footage of what you have to heat and ventilate by the amount you drop the ceiling. Then there is the insulation factor of the actual ceiling tiles to hold down sound and energy. It makes a room more comfortable and less expensive to operate."
Gaskill Preparatory School, 920 Hyde Park Boulevard. Built 1930.
Dehumidification system for pool, replace all ceiling tiles, locker room replacement.
Mr. Spacone explained that the dehumidification system for the pool "will increase the efficiency and decrease the costs to run the pool, and the pool area will be much more comfortable."
Geraldine J. Mann Elementary, 1330 95th St.
Upgrade hot-water boiler system, drop ceilings throughout.
Maple Avenue Elementary, 952 Maple Ave. Built around 1920.
Dehumidification system for pool, replacement of steam piping, replace playground equipment.
Along with correcting some of Maple Avenue's aging construction and maintenance challenges, the district is faced with costly asbestos removal associated with the original piping.
79th Street Elementary, 551 79th St. Built in the 1950s.
Replace steam-piping system, replace air handlers for auditorium and gym, ceiling system/tiles throughout building, new playground equipment.
Mr. Laurrie said, "You hear all these things about childhood obesity and childhood activity all the time. The pool, the gymnasium, the locker rooms, the shower/bathroom areas and the playgrounds -- it is just as important to take care of these as the classrooms."
Hyde Park Elementary, 1614 Hyde Park Boulevard.
Replace water-distribution piping; exterior door replacements, upgrade clock and communication/PA system.
Cataract Elementary, 6431 Girard Ave. Built 1994/1995.
Health and safety upgrades, upgrade communications, security system/cameras, fire alarm system, clock/PA system.
Niagara Falls High School, 4455 Porter Road. Built 2000.
Inside common areas paint, bus loop/main parking/student lots resurfacing.
Central Office, 630 66th St.
Install an elevator.
While it is only a two-story building, Mr. Laurrie explained, "Parents come here for Special Education meetings, Special Needs children come for meetings, and presently we have to have these meetings on the first floor. We have to make sure people are safe, and wheelchairs cannot get up the stairs where some of the offices they need to visit are. We want to make it safe and ADA compliant."
All schools will get enhanced security systems and have a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) lab added. Niagara Falls High School will have two.
The district is also planning to upgrade the information technology throughout the system with a wireless network for each building, giving the school district the capacity to have every student in front of a computer in their classroom.
In their own words:
Earl Smeal: "From the energy management side of what I do, every time we upgrade something with HVAC, we do our best to make sure it's as 'green' as possible and more efficient than what was originally installed in the building. From that point of view, it allows us to spend less money on utilities that can be used for programmatic things for our high needs children."
David Spacone: "From an operations and maintenance perspective, upgrading fixtures and systems will greatly reduce expenses. Upgrading the equipment is always a good thing from the staff perspective. The comfort of the staff and students in the buildings will dramatically increase.
"As the systems are upgraded, we can move into a more preventative maintenance role instead of the rescue from failure as we have to now, which would prolong the life of the equipment we are installing and keep operating costs down."
Mark Laurrie: "We cannot continue to put increasing demands on students and their achievements without giving them the best possible facilities. It is only fair that our students come to the best facilities when we are expecting the best out of them in terms of academic performance."