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$158M school bond vote set for today in Baldwin

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Baldwin School District residents will vote on the $158 million capital improvements bond referendum on Oct. 1 at the District Office, at 960 Hastings St., between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.

The referendum, titled Innovation 2020, was originally scheduled for March, but the coronavirus pandemic forced school officials to postpone it.

The bond would help fund a multi-year capital improvement plan, for which school officials have been collecting input from the community over the past four years. The proposed projects, which include renovating decades-old facilities, would also be funded by grants, state funds and the regular school district budget.

Renovation ideas stemmed from a state-mandated Building Conditions Survey as well as Community Input Night in 2016, when more than 100 local residents shared their thoughts on what they would like to see next to improve school facilities.

Additionally, nearly 400 people offered feedback via ThoughtExchange, an online platform. Residents also shared their thoughts at various school board and community meetings last year.

Residents said they would like to see air-conditioning, new and renovated restrooms, a performing arts center, new auditoriums, redesigned elementary classrooms, a new media center to replace the high school library and new athletic facilities, among other items. Early proposed renderings were presented at school board meetings.

School officials worked with architects and consultants to review the assessed values of all the homes in Baldwin and determine that homeowners would pay an average of $27.81 per month, or $333 per year, for the 20-year bond.

“This is the last and the final resort of how we can do that work,” Superintendent Dr. Shari Camhi said of the bond at a virtual Innovation 2020 presentation on Sept. 16. “There is never, ever going to be an opportunity to do the work that we’re talking about any other way unless New York state changes their entire tax structure to allow this kind of capital work. I want you to know that all of the projects are going to be implemented to maximize state aid return and to minimize the tax levy.”

Camhi added that interest rates are at a historic low now. She also answered frequently asked questions.

“Some people are asking, ‘Well, given where we are in the world right now, why would you do this now?’” Camhi said. “You know that we were attempting to do this back in March; we were doing this because the community asked for it. Why did we bring it back in October? We brought it back in October because we were being asked to bring it back in October. There were many people that really wanted to see this bond go to the community for a vote, and so we’re going to bring it to the community for a vote.”

Another inquiry was, “Can we scale back the project?” Camhi said school officials already did.

At a Baldwin Chamber of Commerce meeting on Sept. 16, President Erik Mahler said general taxes for business owners, if the bond were to pass, would be increased $27 for every $100 of assessed valuation.

Grandview Auto Body owner Paul Lizio said he would likely see an increase of about $1,600 a year, and Franky Jorge, owner of Gala Fresh Farms Supermarket, would see an increase of about $11,000 a year.

A number of chamber members said it is important to support the schools and the community’s children, but the timing of the bond vote is inappropriate.

“During coronavirus, we’re at a record high unemployment, where financially, businesses are hurting, people are hurting, and the school district is coming for over $158 million and they’re asking everyone to front that bill and saying this is your one and only chance, and we’re not willing to change or go down,” Kolstein’s Violin Shop owner Manny Alvarez said at the chamber meeting, adding that he wished to voice his opinion as a Baldwin business owner who cannot cast a vote because he is not a community resident.

“Maybe we don’t need a humongous performing arts center — a brand-new one,” he said, “Maybe we can renovate what we have or make some differences to make that bill a little bit less. I think it’s absurd, and I think it’s not called for at this time to bring about such an impactful hurt to the community, potentially.”

The gym in the District Office, where the vote will take place, will undergo constant cleaning and sanitizing, school officials said in a news release. Social distancing of six feet and wearing of masks will be enforced.