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Thinking Clearly

thethinkerAt last week's Board of Education meeting, Board President Bill Natbony insisted that the Board had worked hard to craft the bond proposal, as if their diligence was enough to justify their decisions. As any good student can tell you, sometimes you can do your homework, dot your "I's" and cross your "T's," but still not get an A.

Why? Maybe your thesis was off. Maybe you missed the main the point of the assignment.

That's what might be the case with the current question before the Board ... Maybe they skipped the most important step; that is to define the questions they needed to answer.

In the case of Greenacres, what are the top priorities? What does the bond proposal need to address in order to succeed?

The conversation has gotten muddled and sidetracked. We're discussing what's going to happen during the construction before we decide what to build. We're adding a cafeteria before parents and teachers are given the chance to discuss whether or not food service is a goal. We're asking for temporary classrooms on the field before we decide what ought to be done with the classrooms in the school.

Maybe that's why we're having so much trouble coming to consensus.

I don't know what your priorities are, but to me, the needs are clear:

-The school needs to be safe, clean and sustainable

-The classrooms should meet model code and be large enough to facilitate the curriculum.

-The building should meet current NYS code requirements and be ADA compliant to accommodate the growing population of children with special needs who will be educated in our schools.

What about food service and a learning commons? In my mind, these concerns are secondary. Until we can ensure our students an adequate learning environment, we don't need to worry about lunch.

So does the proposed plan address these basic needs? The answer is no to some questions and for others, we simply have not been given enough information to know.

Let's keep it simple and tackle the questions one by one.

Is the school safe? Clean and sustainable?

The school has a history of moisture in the basement, and there have been reports of mold. Apparently there are dirt crawl spaces underneath the basement instead of cement foundations. There is the distinct smell of mildew on the lower level and materials stored downstairs end up covered in mildew. Is it possible to totally remediate mold in these areas? Has anyone filed complaints or claims that they have gotten sick? We don't know. We filed a FOIL request to get answers in July, and though we have sent several reminders no information has been provided.

Though they have not been forthcoming about the mold, the district has provided reports that show that there is lead in the water. Following the monitoring, signs were posted on the sinks and water fountains instructing students and personnel not to drink from these sources. This issue has currently been remediated with lead filters.

One would think that a $35 million renovation would include new pipes so that lead filters would not be required. However, this is simply too expensive. So when asked about their plans for the pipes, the architects have provided evasive answers about "replacing any pipes they can touch." Will the water be potable? We simply don't know.

Is this a sustainable solution? Will these filters continue to be effective for 30 or 50 years?

What about the school ... Will the renovated space be adequate? Will classes be big enough to accommodate small group learning, inclusion classes with two teachers and in short, multiple, individualized activities?

In fact, educational experts call for classrooms of at least 900 square feet. In Massachusetts, the recommended size for kindergarten classes is 1,200 square feet. However, at Greenacres, classrooms for our youngest children will remain the same size. Some of these classrooms were built in 1916 and are as small as 700 square feet and are visibly cramped. Three kids share the teacher's desk in one room, the seating mat in front of the smart board is too small to comfortably accommodate 22 kids (if not more) and there's not an inch of wiggle room for active learners. Ceilings are low, cubbies fill the room and there's simply nowhere to expand. If these rooms are inadequate now, how will they seem 30 years from now?

As I have written here before, the district is working to keep more of our special needs students in the schools rather than authorize outplacement. They have also permitted classes sizes that exceed the maximum cap for inclusion classes where there are special needs kids and an additional teacher included in the classrooms. These classes also usually have teacher's aids as well. So what do we have? Extra kids and additional teachers and aids in classrooms that are already too small.

Special Needs and ADA Compliance:

Many of the bathrooms at Greenacres are not ADA compliant. In fact these toilet rooms are so small that full sized adults would be challenged to use them. The original plan did not call for renovations of the existing hall bathrooms or these tiny toilet rooms. After urging from the Greenacres Building Committee the administration has added renovations of these to the budget in a provisional line that will need to be voted on by the Board. Though there will be new tile and fixtures, many will still not be ADA compliant.

Teachers also asked that special services such as occupational therapy and physical therapy be consolidated into one location on the main floor of the building. Unfortunately because of size restrictions, these services are now slated to be upstairs, separated from the school psychologist and reading specialist. This will require some of these kids to walk around the building and take an elevator to access their services, cutting back on the time they receive.

What's more? The playground will remain across the street. I don't know if there's an issue with ADA compliance. But I know it surely poses a challenge to take kids across the street for recess, where there are no bathrooms. Crossing guards are needed all day to stop traffic and facilitate safe crossings.

So, does the project address the school's central needs? Sadly, the answer is no.

What to do? I suggest that instead of retaining a public relations firm to sell the community on this plan, we hire sustainability and educational consultants to take a fresh look at the problem. If we don't meddle with their process, they should be able to analyze the site, the issues and the long-term needs of our community, and find the best solution for the $40 million we have to spend.

Let's not rush to adopt an inadequate, short-term solution. The right answer is out there ... a solution which will last us another 100 years. Let's give the experts the time and freedom to find it.

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