The New Paltz School Board is considering buying 22.4 acres and a house at 301 Route 32 South in New Paltz. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

The New Paltz Board of Education will hold a special vote on Tuesday, April 10 regarding the purchase of land at 301 Route 32 South, adjacent to the Lenape Elementary School. The board finalized its decision to move forward with the vote at a public meeting on March 14 after reviewing results of a community survey, receiving input from community members and considering all of the circumstances regarding the purchase. Because other bidders are interested in the property, the board believes it needs to act quickly.

According to Maria Rice, Superintendent of Schools, the additional acreage offers four opportunities to the district: Lenape Elementary School happens to be in a cul-de-sac with a singular route for entry and departure to the building, which presents a safety challenge, particularly in the event of emergencies. Secondly, the district is experiencing a significant shortage of field space for athletics, both for district programs as well as for community programs. Thirdly, some of the newly acquired acreage could be designated for additional parking for both Lenape Elementary School and the new fields. Lastly, having the additional acreage provides greater flexibility for possible long-term expansion at the site as per NYS Education Department requirements.

 

What the survey revealed

Of the 9,720 surveys mailed out, 1,679 came back completed — that’s about 17 percent of the original mailing size. The poll also revealed a result that surprised the Board of Education: New Paltzians do not seem to approve of or understand why their school board is considering buying 22.4 acres near Lenape Elementary School.

A 65 percent majority of those poll takers said no to a land purchase. Only 19 percent supported it, with 16 percent undecided.

School board President Patrick Rausch noted at last week’s board meeting that the survey went out before news of the Lenape land purchase became public — so it’s possible that people’s reaction might have changed based on getting more of the logic behind the special election.

“If we took the survey totally to heart, we’re basically going to say drop the vote. We’re just not going to do it,” Rausch said.

In all, 76 percent of people who answered the school survey said they supported or strongly supported upgrading current buildings. Of the rest, 17 percent opposed it or strongly opposed it and 7 percent were undecided.

Similarly, 58 percent said they supported or strongly supported building additions to the district’s four schools, while 33 percent were against it, with 9 percent undecided.

When it came to closing one or more school and, say, relocating the middle school to another building, respondents weren’t as enthusiastic. Forty percent supported that school closure and consolidation — another 45 percent was against it, with 15 percent undecided.

New Paltz school voters ranked annexation of the Highland Central School District lowly — 23 percent supported the move. Rather than being entirely negative, that question got a mixed response — 47 percent disapproved of a district merger, while 30 percent were undecided.

Lowest on the totem pole was the idea of building a new school. Respondents were 68 percent against a new building, with 22 percent for it and 10 percent undecided.

 

Voters surprised by Lenape land grab election

The move to buy the land — and the vote to establish an April 10 special election — has surprised even ardent “yes” voters who routinely support school budgets each year. That parcel, at 301 Route 32 South, would cost $798,000 and includes a six-bedroom house.

Village resident and parent Karen Edelman said the purchase did not seem like a necessity.

“I too am a yes voter,” Edelman said. “And to me this land acquisition — while it would be really nice — I feel like … we’re asking for a lot of different money for a lot of different things.”

In May, New Paltz voters will see a ballot with a budget question, an initiative to buy buses and a race for three open school board seats. But they might also see another ballot initiative asking if they’ll support $12.3 million in repairs to the four school buildings and the bus garage. For Edelman, that lineup is too cluttered — especially with an early April vote as well.

“This would be great if we could, but I don’t know if this is an ‘if we could’ year,” she said.

Another New Paltz resident, Jacob Lawrence, seemed to have the same sentiments.

“I am a solid yes voter. When I read the paper last week or the week before about this land acquisition, my first reaction was ‘what?’” Lawrence said. “My reaction to this was, ‘is the board crazy? Are they really thinking about putting that in front of the voters?’”

Money to buy that land would come out of the district’s capital improvement reserve — which can’t be spent to save teachers’ jobs or create programs for students. If voters say yes on April 10, taxes would not rise because that capital fund money was already collected.

President Rausch defended the way the Board of Education behaved leading to the public announcement of the Lenape land vote. Members of the Town Board, including Supervisor Susan Zimet, have expressed frustration about not being consulted on the potential purchase.

According to Rausch, confidentiality was absolutely needed and the school board probably couldn’t have done it much differently.

“The more people who talk, the more chances it’s going to leak, the more chances things are going to happen,” the president said. “And in other school areas, when they have had those kind of issues — what do you think happened? The price went up.”

To know if buying the property was either realistic or feasible, “we needed to put together an understanding on our own basis, on our own part,” he explained. “There was a lot of information we had to collect and get. It wasn’t really until we had all of that in place that we really started formulating a plan.”

Under state Open Meetings Law, boards can hold closed-door executive sessions to move forward with a property purchase or sale — especially when news of that deal could lead to a price war.

“The town got upset because they read about it in the paper, for that I apologize. But we had logic and reasons for doing it,” he said.

Trustee Barbara Carroll said she recalled another time when a potential land purchase confused some New Paltz voters.

“About 20 years ago, when I was on the board, the opportunity came to us in a similar situation — a last-minute thing — to buy a piece of property adjacent to this high school,” Carroll said. “And everyone thought we were nuts to take advantage of it. When the time came to build the new addition onto this high school, had we not purchased that property we would not have been able to put on the addition.”

In that case, almost 15 years went by from the high school land purchase until the district utilized the new property. But ultimately they “put it to good use,” she said.

An informal motion at the board table last week to cancel the April 10 vote did not pass.

 

Two propositions on the ballot on April 10

Voters will find two propositions on the ballot on April 10. The first proposition asks for approval to expand the use of the fund to land purchases. The second proposition asks for approval to expend the $798,000 from the capital reserve fund for the purchase. According to the school district, part of these funds will be returned to the district upon subdivision of the property and sale of the home and outbuildings. The net impact to the tax rate will be limited to the percentage of the property tax that will come off of the tax rolls once the district retains its final portion. The current full tax assessment on the property is $18,240 per year.

The vote will take place on April 10 in the gymnasium at New Paltz High School between the hours of noon and 9 p.m.

Find out more about the vote at the school’s website.++