North Colonie is not a young district. Loudonville Elementary is the oldest building in the district, dating back to the 1930s, and most of the other elementaries in the district were built in the 50’s, while the junior high was built in 1964 and the district’s one high school was completed in 1958. Since then, the high school has had few renovations, with additions in 1970 and the building of J Wing in the early 2000s, along with smaller renovations taking place off the basis of previous bond votes in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Since then, however, in terms of renovations and infrastructure upgrades to update itself for a new century, “[the district] hasn’t done that,” admitted Superintendent Joseph Corr.
Therefore, with the availability of additional state aid stemming from the district’s merger with the Maplewood School District in 2008, along with pressing future enrollment issues in an already-crowded district, Corr, and the district, saw it as a “good time for us to begin to do a lot of the work which we hadn’t done in a major way.”
This was what motivated the district’s proposed ten-year, $196.4 million project, voted down by district voters on December 15th of last year by over 300 votes — a near 8-point margin, in the largest turnout the district had seen in 30 years. The plan proposed updating both the district buildings and the curriculums for an expanding and modernizing district, including security and space upgrades for each district school. The elementaries were to have expanded media centers built, along with new “innovation centers” for fourth and fifth graders. Changes to the junior high would have included adding sixth grade to the existing seventh and eighth, adding another hall to the existing four, and increasing the size of the cafeteria, media center, gyms and locker rooms, art and music rooms, auditorium, and more.
Changes to the high school would have been similar: a new entrance with enhanced security, enlarged music, art, and lab spaces, along with a larger, redesigned auditorium, and many other features. Richard Murphy, school principal, described it as a “comprehensive upgrade for the entire school, from our music to our career and technical education program to our science labs.”
To address the already severe traffic concerns that plague the high school and junior high and the likely additional traffic to come out of an added sixth grade, a third entry lane to SHS for student traffic was proposed, as was the extension of the drop off lane at both the junior high and high schools and a gated cross-connect between the two schools.
Building renovations weren’t all that were considered — several landscaping/site changes were brought up, as well. These included: moving the baseball field and putting a staff parking lot in its place, replacing the Walker football field with turf, so it would be more comfortable and widely used by PE classes, moving the tennis courts at the high school to the junior high for a total of 8 courts, and more.
School taxes were not to to rise due to the project until 2022, when the first of the bond payments were to be due. Estimations for this tax change point to about a 1.9% increase in taxes in 2022, and 2.0% in both 2023 and 2024.) Despite North Colonie having one of the lowest school taxes in the region, the cost of the project, both in terms of the impact on taxpayers and the total bond itself, seems to have been a factor in its defeat. As Brian Austin, orchestra teacher at Shaker and member of the Town of Colonie planning board, said, “people were worried and scared” about the cost. Michael Conners, Albany County Comptroller and one of the most vocal critics of the project, agreed with the sentiment, calling the project a “big hit” that is “not just $196 million. It’s $196 million plus interest.”
Mr. Conners, who has had three children attend the high school and believes the district to be “a tremendous product” and also in need of “serious renovations,” was not surprised about the outcome. “People were pissed off,” he said. This was not only because of the cost (which he claimed to be “artificially inflated” to “take advantage” of the reimbursement from the merger with Maplewood), he believed, but also a reaction to the vote being held on a so-called “shaky date” at one location (the district’s administrative offices) — the first time in over thirty years that district voters could not vote at their local elementary school.
Prior to this December vote, every bond, Board of Education, and budget vote was held at the elementary schools, with same-day registration available to voters. By state law, every district vote, if to be held at multiple locations, must have voters register ahead of time. However, in 1981, the North Colonie Board of Education abandoned that policy, choosing instead to allow multiple voting locations with same-day registration, which was explicitly “not in line with education law,” admitted Superintendent Corr. Since then, the district has proceeded with this illegal policy, though Corr maintains that the district had no knowledge of its departure of the law until the district’s attorneys informed him of it in October of 2016. “I would love to return to the way we did,” Corr said, but in the end, he had an “an ethical responsibility to follow that law, even when that law was not in your interest, even when you don’t want to do it.”
Conners, on the other hand, saw the timing and location of the vote as “a travesty and creat[ing] an impression of voter suppression,” he said.. This problem of “shaky dates” was not exclusive to North Colonie, Conners said, as he criticized recent votes held by the Bethlehem and Albany school district along the same lines. The Albany vote of February 2016 (which he termed an “unmitigated disaster”) in particular was plagued by polling problems, and Conners commended North Colonie for its handling of its own vote, while still questioning the ethics of having the district run the vote itself.
Superintendent Corr rejected all claims of voter suppression or any other ulterior motives behind the district’s choice of date, calling them simply “not true.” Instead, he characterized December 15th as the earliest time the district could feasibly hold the vote, due to time needed for planning and the unavailability of voting machines or workers around the contentious November national election. In fact, he found that date as already pushing the timeline, since the district is required by law to have the general contracts for the plan signed by June 30th, 2018, and the architectural planning, approval by the State Education Department, and choosing of a contractor would take up to a year and a half, by Corr’s estimate.
And, in the end, the date of December 15th did not seem to dissuade voters; rather, over 4,000 turned out to deliver what Superintendent Corr called “a clear message” to the district. Despite an extensive campaign of community meetings and publicity for the project beginning in the spring of 2016, including over 35 personal presentations by the superintendent, there were still complaints about a lack of transparency and confusion over the project, made by both Comptroller Conners and district residents at a community meeting held after the vote. Corr acknowledged these concerns, saying, “People will believe what they want to believe,” and “for whatever reason…even though we did all of this, we still didn’t reach people, and still people felt that they didn’t know enough.”
This community meeting, held on January 30th at the Junior High and attended by over 200 district residents and employees, was, per Corr, “a start in the right direction” for the district’s communication. Over several hours, the 210 attendees were divided into “breakout rooms” of 10-12 each to discuss a series of topics and questions predetermined by the district, focusing mainly on what voters thought of the rejected proposal and how they’d like to see it changed, along with the issue of voter registration, which is required in order to have multiple voting locations. One of the first issues brought up was the effects of the increased taxes due to the bond, with Mrs. A. Schneider, a parent of two former North Colonie students, said, “I have a 28 year old son and not one of his friends, all from Shaker, have bought homes in this area because it’s too expensive. I’m afraid that we are pricing our students out of this area. I have to believe we can do something for less than 196 million dollars that would serve our students well… We have to be concerned that we are not forcing our young people or our old people to move out, because that I think will change what we love about this community.”
Another large concern brought up by community members was the aforementioned issue of transparency: how and where is the $196.4 million going to be spent. Dr. Linda Emmer, who has two children in the Menands school, wished for “some sort of breakdown” further than what the district has offered, a view that was shared by many in the room. She went on to say, “You see 63 million, 76 million. What does that really mean? What does that break down to? Those are large numbers for each area… every penny may be required but it doesn’t seem transparent to the average voter who showed up.” She also expressed an interest in seeing the “why” or reasoning behind each cost.
One of the ideas brought up by an older resident with no children, Mr. Tom S., was that the district could split up the bond into necessities and wants for the voters to vote on, a suggestion lauded by Comptroller Conners, who also attended the meeting. Conners also, in retrospect, criticized the meeting as “stacked” with individuals affiliated with the district, terming most of the proceeding as the district “preaching to the choir.” However, Mr. Murphy and Mr. Corr vehemently disagreed with this view, with Mr. Murphy explaining that attendees had to RSVP in advance on the district website, adding, “We wanted people who supported it, people who were against it, and people on the fence.”
One conclusion reached by most at the meeting, as well as by Comptroller Conners, Superintendent Corr, Mr. Austin, and Principal Murphy, was that the price tag of near $200 million was a major factor in the rejection of the project, and the district is now taking steps to reduce the size of the project for the next, and likely final vote, on the project, to be held on May 16th, the same date as the annual budget vote and board of education elections. Though the details of the revised plans have not been released as of press time, the district is without doubt “scaling that cost down” in the future, said Superintendent Corr. Regardless of the details of the revised project, however, this is likely to be the final chance for the district to take advantage of the additional state aid before it expires.
It still remains to be seen how successful renewed outreach attempts by the district to voters and the district’s revised plan will be, but there seems to be some consensus on one issue: North Colonie needs renovations and expansions, and soon. The size and nature of this, however, is up to the voters to decide. So if you can vote, be sure to do so on May 16th; and if not, make sure your parents vote.
For more information about the Bond Vote, future meetings, and proposals visit the North Colonie Website. To learn more about Comptroller Conner’s perspective, you can visit his blog on the Times Union Website.