Big Fixes Needed At Verona Schools

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Treads have separated on the front steps at HBW

The heat fails at Verona High School and the front stairs at H.B. Whitehorne look like hell. There are holes in the doors at F.N. Brown and Laning, and two holes in what had been the high school football field for the last three decades. There are broken sidewalks and pavement, and tiles that have broken loose from ceilings. And, perhaps worst of all, the budget dollars set aside for buildings and grounds work in Verona public schools won’t even begin to cover the work that needs to be done.

The sobering news on the state of Verona schools was delivered at the Board of Education meeting on Tuesday night by Facilities Director Paul McDevitt.

At the meeting, McDevitt identified up to $9.1 million in repairs that need to be done over the next five years, ranging from $100,000 in sidewalk fixes to as much as $4 million to turn the lower field at VHS–the baseball field that became the football field this fall after the sinkholes opened on Thomas J. Sellitto Field–into a multi-purpose sports complex. The BOE needs $2.5 million to fix the heating system at the high school and $450,000 to fix paving around the district.

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“We need to do this or things will have to be closed,” Superintendent Steven A. Forte said bluntly in a separate interview.

Trouble is, we don’t have the bucks. Right now, Verona’s annual budget for buildings and grounds spending at the schools is $2.5 million. But much of that is allocated for everything but maintenance and repairs. There is almost $1.4 million in salaries for custodians and staff, and $620,000 for gas and electric bills. The operating budget is just $350,000, down from $495,000 for the 1998-99 school year, and of that, only $200,000 is available for repairs and improvements. The rest is spent on fixed recurring costs like the fire alarm system and custodial supplies.

A crumbling ceiling at VHS

Most of the items identified in McDevitt’s report are long-standing problems that were cut from the 2006 bond referendum that expanded and improved many of the schools. The VHS boilers, for example are 30 years old and most commercial boilers have a life expectancy of 20 years.

“These are big, serious problems that we can’t fix with our current budget,” said Forte. “There’s not one thing on here that’s a luxury.”

“You can’t have crumbling facilities,” Forte added. “This is important stuff that we have to fix. What we have currently isn’t what a town like Verona should have. We shouldn’t be saying that we don’t have heat sometimes. We shouldn’t have holes in doors.”

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So where are we going to get the budget? Neither Forte nor the BOE have explicitly called for a new referendum, but that is likely where things are heading. As MyVeronaNJ.com reported in October, town government seems unlikely to share revenue from the Hilltop apartment complex with the BOE. The development was structured as a so-called PILOT, with a fixed annual payment that goes largely to the town instead of property taxes that would have to be shared with Essex County.

If there is any consolation in these repair bills, it may be this: Bond rates are at historic lows and Verona is not the only town with school maintenance woes. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s public schools a “D” grade on its most recent infrastructure report card, saying that the spending shortfall nationwide is $35 billion. The situation is so dire in some districts that they are resorting to partnerships with private sector companies: The companies agree to build and maintain the schools, and the school boards essentially rent the space.

You can read McDevitt’s presentation on the school Web site here or watch the YouTube of the BOE meeting below. The presentation begins at the 12:41 minute mark.
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Virginia Citrano
Virginia Citranohttps://myveronanj.com
Virginia Citrano grew up in Verona. She moved away to write and edit for The Wall Street Journal’s European edition, Institutional Investor, Crain’s New York Business and Forbes.com. Since returning to Verona, she has volunteered for school, civic and religious groups, served nine years on the Verona Environmental Commission and is now part of Sustainable Verona. She co-founded MyVeronaNJ in 2009. You can reach Virginia at [email protected]

9 COMMENTS

  1. Sorry to have missed the meeting but isn’t a multi-purpose sports complex a luxury? I think other accomodations need to be made until the necessities are taken care of (such as heat). Although inconvenient, away games or other fields can be used in the meantime. Maybe the B&G budget needs to be increased and other things need to be cut. Maybe those cuts can be subsidized or funded by organizations like VFEE, VMAC, or the SCAs. I know that some of the perks and special things we get from those organizations are great, but things really need to be prioritized now…first and foremost, the safety of our children. I don’t think the taxpayers can take another hit. The above mentioned organizations will then suffer as well because I believe they are funded by taxpayer dollars already through donations and fundraisers.

  2. Does that $1.4 million in salaries for maintenance and custodians include benefits? Maybe it is time to privatize with outside companies to cover these positions. The town has taken over the field maintenance , now what the BOE has left is maint. and custodians who are all too old to be doing those jobs.
    Plus, the union demands their increases each year , warranted or not. Move on , get rid of these guys and go with outside maintenance- also , do we need a facilities manager who dresses up in a suit to impress?

  3. I agree with Michele. Necessary maintenance and repairs to school buildings have to be prioritized and should not become part of a package deal that includes the creation of a multi-purpose sports complex. Let’s have a referendum on the $5.1 million needed for the urgent repairs to ensure the safety of our children. The additional $4 million for the field can be discussed later.

  4. At this point the field complex is a necessity. That none of our school’s fall sports teams can play AT VHS is an embarrassment. Not to mention that just a few years ago the sinkhole problem could have been avoided if the Turf Field Referendum passed. The day-to-day conditions of all of the fields at VHS is pathetic, and is detriment to all of our school’s athletes.
    Many of the other repairs are also of serious concern, such as the heat and damage to the doors, and yes it is unfortunate that we do not have the funds. But do not complain about the cost of turning over the lower field when the whole problem could have been avoided by paying just a bit more in taxes a year to fund a STATE-OF-THE-ART stadium complex on the upper field.

    –From a 2012 graduate.

  5. It’s my understanding that we’ve already spent significant funds (more than $25,000) to “temporarily” turn over the lower field for 5 home games this season – all of which were not even played there. When I think of necessity I think of heat in all of our schools in the winter time, and books for all of our kids in their classrooms (and yes, some of our classrooms do not have enough books for all of the children). So, if I could vote for where my tax dollars are being spent (and yes, I do pay taxes) I’m going to say heat, safety, and books. We could live quite comforably without the rest. Especially with the beautiful Centennial field. A little compromising of schedules and working together can go a long way. Oh, and what great lessons for our children…you can’t spend what you don’t have, sometimes you need to wait, sometimes you need to save up for things you want and work hard to raise the money, and the list goes on…

  6. In total the cost was supposedly about $40,OOO – (part of which was contributed by the township but still should be considered taxpayer dollars) to relocate the field. Health and safety need to be the issues that the BOE concentrates on now- unfortunately, the field renovations may need to be delayed. There seems to be alot of spending going on that should have been more carefully thought out ( including money spent for legal fees in a ridiculous never ending lawsuit that every time there is something in the paper about, it looks more and more like a personal vendetta against the woman.) People need to speak up to this BOE to stop the foolish spending – otherwise if there is a referendum vote it will probably fail.

  7. Valerie, if I do not pay property taxes, does my opinion not matter and does my vote not count?

    If I were to ask you whether you paid property taxes, some readers might view my question as gender-biased or prejudiced.

    Hundreds of seniors at the Hillwood complex pay no property taxes, because that entire complex is tax-exempt, yet their opinions and votes count.

    Many disabled veterans pay no property taxes, yet their opinions and votes count.

    Hundreds of renters pay no property taxes, yet their opinions and votes count.

    And the residents of the new Highlands at Hilltop townhouses pay no property taxes, yet their opinions and votes count.

    There once was a time when you needed to own property to vote. But that requirement was originated to disenfranchise citizens, just as were the requirements to be white, literate, or male.

    While I may not be able to convince you to respect the opinion of a recent high school graduate on what is best for the town, the 26th Amendment will continue to guarantee this young person’s right to vote and the 24th Amendment will guarantee that right even if he does not pay property taxes in Verona.

  8. Richard, you must be fun at parties. The reason I asked Phil that question is because of a saying my dad had when I was in my 20’s, “Everything is relative” (to ones own experiences). Of course a recent graduate without the responsibilities of a family, a home and all the cost that come with it would feel the way he does, but his following comment wasn’t very tolerant…”But do not complain about the cost of turning over the lower field when the whole problem could have been avoided by paying just a bit more in taxes a year to fund a STATE-OF-THE-ART stadium complex on the upper field.” I was hoping to open a dialogue with PHIL to explain the other side of the coin, instead I got you, who completely misinterpreted and assumed I was attacking Phil.

    Now, since you brought it up I’ll continue to use my 1st Amendment right, senior citizens have paid (& I’m sure you are familiar with this term) more then their fair share, the service of our veterans priceless, and don’t even start me on the PILOT program. Two (maybe 3) years ago I had a phone conversation with Jay S. because I was concerned the PILOT program was taking money away from our schools . I was told that they were going to share a portion of the money with the schools, but things change and “everything is relative”. Have a great day!

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