Given my prior service on the school board and experience with the district’s fiscal matters, an increasing number of residents over the past week have asked for my opinion on the upcoming bond proposal vote. I support the bond proposal and remain hopeful that our community will approve on Tuesday.
I have read a number of well written narratives and emails from those who are concerned about increasing our net debt load in a community that already pays among the highest property taxes in the country. I very much appreciate and share those concerns, particularly among our empty-nesters who pay more than 50% of our school taxes and do not currently have children attending our schools.
Despite my shared concerns, I do believe this bond proposal represents a unique opportunity to invest in our students and programs and positions our district to more effectively confront the budgetary challenges we will most certainly face in the future. Assuming the bond proposal is approved by the community, our annual debt service as a percentage of our budget will continue to remain significantly lower than other leading peer districts in Scarsdale, Armonk, Irvington, Briarcliff and Bronxville. The proposed bond financing and investments are neither the cause of nor will they materially impact our high annual property tax burden. The reality of our fiscal situation is that our property taxes are high due to NYS mandates that are directly supported by our elected NYS governing officials. Only voters can fix that problem. It truly is that simple.
I firmly believe that the strength of our school system anchors our home values from further potential depreciation. While Chappaqua may be a pretty, bucolic community, the increasingly longer train ride from NYC, high property taxes and downtown constraints pose serious challenges. We need the Chappaqua schools system to remain a renowned, innovative and leading system in order to sustain the attractiveness of our community to future home buyers. The world is moving faster than ever and leading districts will not be those that are left behind.
I support the bond proposal for the following reasons:
1) We are appropriately financing our long-term capital investments with a long-term, fixed price bond at an exceptionally low annual interest rate (I believe the bond will ultimately price at a 2.00% - 2.50% rate).
The 20-year maturity period for the proposed bond matches the long-term expected benefits for our athletic fields, building and grounds and educational facilities, etc. while providing a highly visible, fixed certain payment schedule. I believe the alternative approach of “upfronting” these capital expenditures on a year-to-year basis through large increases to the budget does not represent sound fiscal policy. Each year our annual budget is subject to significant volatility and intrusion from New York State through ever-increasing unfunded mandates, special interest driven initiatives and the state simply not fulfilling its funding commitments to school districts.
We may easily find ourselves in a position where large, unexpected increases in NYS mandates force the district to implement deleterious cuts to our students and programs to offset urgent capital expenditures/repairs to our infrastructure (i.e. leaky roofs). The long-term nature of the bond will help to insulate our district from this type of scenario.
2) I unequivocally trust the capabilities and intentions of our school district leadership, professionals and board of education.
I had the opportunity to work closely with many of our school district professionals and have great respect for their professionalism. I have spent over 25 years in the finance sector and can tell you that John Chow, our district’s Assistant Superintendent for Business, is one of the most effective and conscientious financial professionals I have ever worked with. Many residents don’t know this, but during my tenure on the school board the district pursued and completed a highly complex energy performance contract that resulted in $12 million in needed improvements to our buildings paid for entirely through energy cost savings – no taxpayer dollars. I can assure you that without John Chow’s proactive leadership and execution, the energy performance contract never would have occurred and our taxpayer’s would have had to pay for these $12 million of improvements – most likely through a bond.
I have high confidence in Dr. Lyn McKay’s strategic educational vision and know her to balance the need for sustaining excellence and innovation in our schools with pragmatic fiscal prudence. I additionally know Lyn McKay to be a collaborative leader that seeks input and advice from her administrative team, teaching professionals and the community prior to making decisions. I have had the opportunity to work closely with our board of education members. I know each member to be fiercely objective and independent in their decision making and strong fiduciaries for the taxpayer.
I recommend that residents review the detailed descriptions of the proposed educational initiatives on the district website. I found them to be highly informative, tangible and consistent with initiatives and infrastructure that our students will be expected to be familiar and comfortable with at the college level.
3) We need to invest in our buildings and educational infrastructure.
I believe the deferral of needed capital spending into the future, particularly for building and grounds, will ultimately result in future replacement or repair costs at a growth level that will be considerably higher than the 2.00% - 2.50% annual interest rate that I believe we will achieve with the bond financing.
We must be realistic in our thinking and address the needs of our aging buildings:
Building - Year Opened
Bell Middle School 1928
Roaring Brook 1951
Horace Greeley 1957
Douglas Grafflin 1962
Chappaqua Library 1978
4) We will actually receive significant NYS funding participation for the proposed
Our ability to invest in our students and programs through our traditional annual budget process is typically thwarted by NYS. The state is a substantial “net taker” of resources from our district through the imposition of unsustainable unfunded mandates, common core initiatives, arcane rules and regulations more reflective of the 19th century. Each year, our elected NYS governing officials and legislators are taking from our district’s students and programs. Under this bond proposal, New York State will actually be a financial contributor to our district by covering 33.6% of qualified building expenditures.
5) Our fields are in terrible condition and require investment.
I cannot tell you how many friends who live in other towns have commented to me how terrible our athletic fields are. We have failed for years to install turf while nearly every other surrounding district has made the investment. We need to support our student athletes and community programs and provide facilities and opportunities that are comparable to the districts surrounding us. I believe it is time to move forward and install turf.
6) I believe the proposed bond financing will actually place the district in a stronger financial position to address future budget challenges.
By locking in the financing for and completing these investments now, our community will benefit from increased flexibility in the future to confront the inevitable budget challenges that lie ahead. In addition, our community will continue to benefit from the historically low fixed interest rate of this financing for 20 years. The attractiveness of this financing greatly enhances the affordability of the proposed investments.
To the extent we defer needed or important investments to the future, we may find ourselves in a troubling situation whereby NYS officials, legislators and their special interest constituencies effectively hold our students hostage in a budget environment where we may be forced to cut or under-invest in our educational and other programs in order to simultaneously pay for urgent infrastructure repairs and increased mandate costs. By financing and completing these investments now for the long-term, we insulate ourselves from this potential scenario and provide the district with the flexibility to more effectively confront future budget challenges from a position of strength and better protect our students and district.
For the reasons I have stated above, I support the proposed bond financing and hope the community approves on June 14th.