Report by Paula Antolini
October 22, 2017 7:25PM EDT
Cynthia McCorkindale: Why I Voted No
Bethel will soon be bonding out upwards of $67 million for renovations to Johnson and Rockwell schools, contingent on an award of a State grant that reimburses 45% of eligible costs associated with this project. Eligible or ineligible, this is costing serious money. Everything is very expensive. It always is. And, sadly, expensive seems to be the trend with so many government projects. There are always people who will make money from it. Builders, contractors, vendors, architects, vendors – go for every extractable dollar from large-scale municipal projects. Why? Because they can.
When a municipal project goes out to bid, it brings with it a superlative money-making opportunity. Contractors, hard and soft goods vendors – everyone knows that a government grant will usually provide a nice chunk of change. Unfortunately, over time, this has become the stereotype of how government projects often lead to irresponsible handling of our hard-earned dollars. With so many players on the field at one time, it takes an extraordinary amount of focus to make sure that does not happen, and, unless the project includes a team of people who are willing to practice tough oversight, it will happen over and over again.
My ‘no’ vote is a protest of these practices.
My ‘no’ vote represents my opinion that the public education system needs reform. From mandates, to teacher regulations that deprive them of their individuality in the classroom, to inflexible, demanding unions, overpaid administrators, to “fixed costs,” that aren’t really fixed. However, it’s not just about one project – it’s about many projects – many budgets. It’s about an ingrained way of thinking that has us looking at the world of education exclusively through the lens of “it’s for the children.” Whenever we do this, it becomes very difficult for hard financial analysis and major cost-savings options to break through. There are those who equate more money with higher quality, and believe that increased spending represents a deeper caring.
Then, of course, there is the grant process itself.
The process of this construction grant application was so off-the-wall it might lead one to think it was intentional. The State puts the school board in the position of having to turn down the option of building ONE newly-constructed school because the State’s reimbursement was lower than the renovate-as-new option for two schools? I liked the idea of one new school, because statistics show enrollment in Bethel as basically flat and it will likely decline over the next 20 years.
The State requires applicants to jump through numerous hoops and adhere to a ridiculous timeline that is out of step with reality. Imagine having to get permission to do a project before you can even be put on a “priority list.” For most start-up business loans, all you need is an idea and a plan. For scholastic grants, you need a project idea and a history of good grades. However, for education construction grants, there seems to be a lot of gratuitous gauntlet running. At best, it screams inefficiency and unfairness. At worst, it smacks of a well-orchestrated coercion tactic.
Bethel’s application was submitted before the June 30th deadline, and after the customary hearings and meetings, we voters were summoned forth to make a yes-or-no decision on a fully-packaged project proposal, and told that it must be done prior to November 15th. To do otherwise would spell disaster.
Ironically, the entire State of Connecticut could be declared a disaster right now. There’s so much juggling and plate-spinning going on up in Hartford – who knows if or where it all may fall, and who will get clobbered the hardest.
As an individual and as a Board of Finance member, I tend to be more practical than emotional when it comes to finances. I also have the utmost respect for Bethel’s teachers, the Superintendent, and the Fiscal Services Director. I’m able to appreciate their extraordinary hard work and their passion for this project, and at the same time, disagree with the path that was taken to get there.
It goes without saying that school districts should absolutely offer all the tools for high quality education – within their means. So, where exactly does a building – the shell – the place where all the learning occurs – fit into the picture?
We now have a construction project where less than 3% of $65 million dollars is allocated to technology for both schools, Technology – the very thing that will catapult our children into the future! Do we really need a bigger shell – or two renovated shells – as the world migrates more and more towards a remote workforce and online classes? What exactly does the shell offer? Well, let’s go back to the State. One thing we know for sure is that it requires compliance with endless safety and health regulations, code regulations, utility regulations, and regulation regulations. Some are necessary, most are ridiculous.
So, I voted ‘no.’
I voted ‘no’ because, although I believe the Bethel school system is an attractive benefit to our community, it does not represent the value of the entire community. Take seniors and veterans who own homes, for example. Seniors living in Bethel are a “net positive” for the Town. What seniors pay in taxes more than covers what they cost the Town – compared to the school system where, in Bethel, the current cost per pupil is close to $16K a year. It doesn’t make sense to drive seniors out of town. It seems much more logical to take the necessary steps to mitigate their tax burden. Bethel is lopsided that way.
So, I voted ‘no.’
I voted ‘no’ for all the taxpayers who are struggling to keep their heads above water, who, ironically, as the resulting tax increases from this project hit five years down the road, may have already been forced to relocate.
I voted ‘no’ for single, divorced, widowed moms and dads who adore their children, and yet somehow feel deficient or ostracized from the more fortunate members of parent groups because of their financial status and political leanings. Some are ashamed to even ask for assistance, especially if they had been more self-sufficient in the past.
I voted ‘no’ for those seniors and veterans who, perceive the scenario of bonding large amounts of money with trepidation. For better or worse, their perception is their reality. No amount of mathematical wizardry will put those residents at ease about borrowing money at this level.
I voted ‘no’ because, the State of Connecticut’s economic outlook looks more and more sketchy each day that passes without a budget. Are we going to get those ECS dollars? Are we not going to receive ECS dollars? Maybe we’ll get some of our ECS dollars. I’m not the sort of person, thinker, or leader who chases the tracks in the snow and hope that what I’m looking for is at the other end. I base my decisions on experience, and my experience with the State of Connecticut over the past nine months tells me that they are not to be trusted with providing lunch money, let alone come through with a 45% reimbursement grant.
The renovation project passed at referendum. And, so, we go forward. The people have spoken. No regrets whatsoever. I’m confident that those ugly duckling buildings will be turned into beautiful swans. But as we move ahead, let us not disregard the the seniors, who are the people who brought us into this world. These are the same people whose grandchildren and great-grandchildren are the very students who attend Bethel’s amazing schools! The seniors and veterans who worked hard for many, many years and they deserve real financial consideration, and not be booted out of their own homes because they can no longer afford to stay in the small town they love.
Am I cynical? You bet. Am I suspicious? Only when the signs point in that direction.
At the end of the day, my ‘no’ vote simply represents my disappointment in the system, the ongoing push for bigger government, and the lack of critical evaluation of every municipal dollar spent. We need to keep the taxpayer in the forefront of our thinking for every financial decision that is made.
I believe that we can be more mindful of handling taxpayer dollars like we would our own. But it has to be set and observed as a high priority.
I would like the opportunity to lead Bethel in that direction.