East Ramapo eyes bond in ‘$200M range’ to fix buildings. Will voters back it?

“With school starting Thursday, the finishing touches were being made this week on buildings throughout the East Ramapo school district. At Grandview, a K-3 elementary school, the smell of fresh paint lingered Tuesday as walls were spiffed up to match new floors throughout classrooms, halls and the cafeteria. A newly replaced gym floor remained off limits for the week as it set.

The work was part of a massive project at all schools, funded by $90 million the district set aside for repairs from its pot of federal American Rescue Plan Act funding doled out during the pandemic.

But that record amount of federal investment won’t be near enough to get the district’s schools in shape. A recent state-mandated Building Conditions Survey failed every school in the district, finding many areas “unsatisfactory.”

While some of the problems outlined in the building survey are being addressed during the $90 million ARPA overhaul, many aren’t even touched by the project.

East Ramapo:All schools fail state-mandated building survey; fixes could cost $500M

After the building condition survey drew statewide attention to the district’s ongoing infrastructure failings, district leaders announced they would hammer out a bond proposal to cover the work not touched by the ongoing ARPA project.The estimated bond price tag? “In the $200 million range,” Superintendent Clarence Ellis said during a recent interview.

The challenge: low bond rating, reticent voters

Ellis said a task force of community members will be developed to plan and push for the bond’s passage. He also said district officials will meet in the next weeks with financiers to figure out how a bond would be structured.

“We will continue being transparent,” Ellis said. “It will take a constellation of efforts to get this done.”

Many factors will make such a big ask challenging. Not the least of which is Moody’s Investors Service’ decision last month to change East Ramapo’s outlook on certain borrowing to “negative.” The bond rating remained the same, at Baa3, one step above junk status. Ellis called that news “problematic.”

But the clearest challenge: Getting voters to support a bond that property owners have to pay back.

After all, the district couldn’t pass a 2023-2024 budget plan with a 1.99% property tax levy increase. Voters approved a second budget in June only after the plan erased any tax levy increase.

That was accomplished by cutting out $3 million worth of Americans With Disabilities Act-compliant playground repairs, another example of pushing off repairs to save immediate costs.

A budget rejection at the polls is hardly an anomaly in East Ramapo: The district has operated under contingency budgets because of failed budget plans more than any other in the state during the tax-cap era.

Who will support bond?

The hallmark of East Ramapo for more than a decade has been its divisions.

Some 10,500 students attend the public schools, mostly children of color, many of them poor. The public schools are gaining new students, especially immigrant students. Last year, the district launched a Newcomers Academy, which offers supports for children who have undergone often harrowing journeys here, may have inconsistent past education and have limited English.

Another 35,000 kids who live within the district go to private schools, mostly yeshivas that serve the Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish community. This population, too, is growing.

Most children who reside in the district, whether enrolled in public or private schools, are considered economically disadvantaged, according to federal and state guidelines.

The majority of school board members have long represented constituencies primarily from the private-school community. Those wards often vote down budget plans. Meanwhile, wards with public-school populations often have low voter turnout. Public-school advocates point out that a growing number of parents who send their kids to East Ramapo schools cannot vote in school elections because they don’t have U.S. citizenship.

Newcomers Academy:East Ramapo launches program at special campus as influx of English learners squeezes schools

So the big question: How do district leaders expect to win public support for a $200 million bond when it can’t win community backing for $3 million in a budget to make repairs?

“We need greater support from the community,” Ellis said, including from “influential community members.” The school board makes the final decision about the amount of any bond or other proposal that would go before voters.”

Read the complete Journal News coverage here.