Photographs taken nearly a dozen years ago quickly explain why the portable trailer housing three classrooms and most of East Quogue Elementary School’s administrative offices was slowly sinking.
Captured by representatives of ECG Engineering in Smithtown, the image revealed rusted metal and rain-soaked wood covered in black mold running along the undercarriage of the trailer, which was added in the 1950s to accommodate growing enrollment. The addition blends so well with the Central Avenue school that most don’t even know that it is not a permanent part of the building.
Following the discovery, district officials paid ECG Engineering $25,000 to rip out the failing wood supports and replace them with new concrete ones, further extending the life of the portable unit—which most agree should have a lifespan of approximately 10 years—for another decade-plus and counting.
Eric Gomez, the elementary school’s maintenance crew leader since 1999, said the emergency repairs essentially saved a “sinking ship.” He also noted during a recent interview that while the work completed in 2002 ultimately extended the life of the structure, “at the end of the day, it’s still a trailer.”
That is why members of the district’s new facility’s subcommittee, who are evaluating the more immediate needs of the elementary school and charged with coming up with recommendations, have put replacing the 2,500-square-foot trailer with a permanent building at the top of their wish list.
Subcommittee members—who include Mr. Gomez, business administrator Bruce Singer, East Quogue Board of Education members Dianna Gobler and Brian Babcock, and School Superintendent Robert Long—also are proposing assorted upgrades to the gymnasium, renovations to other classrooms and bathrooms, as well as the installation of a security vestibule in the school’s main lobby.
“I had to walk around the school for myself and see … as old as the school is, you don’t realize it until you get on your hands and knees and walk around,” Mr. Babcock said on Tuesday. “It’s rotting away.”
While expansion plans have not yet been finalized, Mr. Long said on Friday that the total cost of the proposed work is expected to run approximately $8.4 million, and that district residents could vote on the bond as early as March 2018. Mr. Babcock added that the goal is to have the bond on the ballot before the end of the current school year.
If approved in March, the work is not expected to start until the 2020-21 school year. John Grillo, owner of John A. Grillo Architects in Port Jefferson—the district’s architect for the project—said the renovations would take roughly 14 months to complete.
“This needs to be done,” said Mr. Babcock, underscoring the desire of his board to put up the bond referendum as soon as possible.
Subcommittee members agree that their top priority is removing the portable trailer and replacing it with a 4,700-square-foot addition, work that is expected to cost around $5 million and account for almost 60 percent of the entire bond. If the bond is ultimately approved, officials would bring in another trailer—though this one will be on-site only for the anticipated 14 months of construction. The trailer would house the three displaced classrooms and most of the district’s administrative offices until the new addition is finished, Mr. Long said.
Once completed, the addition would house a science lab and three additional classrooms, according to the superintendent. The administrative offices would eventually be relocated to the classroom that sits just to the left of the main entrance.
Next on the list is the installation of a security vestibule, just inside the school’s main entrance, that is expected to run in the neighborhood of $1 million. When finished, the area will feature two sets of double doors and feature a welcome widow connecting to the main office where visitors will be required to check in, Mr. Gomez said. Once they receive clearance, visitors will be buzzed through the second set of double doors.
Presently, one of the district’s three part-time security guards is always stationed at the entrance, and that individual directs visitors to the main office. Visitors must sign in, jot down their time of arrival and write down a reason for their visit. But as noted by Tom Agoglia, one of the part-time guards, some visitors can bypass security if the guard is distracted or if there is a lot of activity.
To help address that situation, school officials are installing the Raptor Visitor Management System, a computer scanning system by Raptor Technologies out of Houston, Texas. The $200 system will screen the driver’s licenses of all visitors against a registered sex offender database, providing officials with instant information. Mr. Long said he expects the system to be installed within the next month. “We’re prioritizing the need and safety of the students,” he said.
If approved, the bond will also fund the replacement of padding and flooring in the school gymnasium, work that is expected to run around $900,000. The original blue padding that runs along the perimeter of the facility is fraying and peeling from the wall, leaving exposed plywood in some sections.
Mr. Gomez said he has “serious safety concerns” with the gym’s current condition, with Mr. Long noting that the facility is also used by other community organizations, like the Hamptons Youth Athletic League, or HYAL.
“East Quogue is a community playground for football, basketball, wrestling and baseball leagues,” Mr. Long said. “There is no where else they can go.”
Linda DiCapua, a former gym teacher at the Central Avenue school and current HYAL director, concurs with that assessment. “The floor is very slippery,” she said. “We play basketball and it’s hard to call a travel because they slide when they try to stop.”
Other members of the facility’s subcommittee also want to complete renovations to other classrooms and bathrooms throughout the building.
As part of the proposed bond, all classrooms and bathrooms would receive new doors, as some have begun to grind against the floor when closing whereas others have come close to injuring students as they close too quickly. The bathrooms would get new stalls and flooring, and all exposed radiators would be removed. Additionally, officials want to upgrade the bathroom in the nurse’s office so it is in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“The nurse’s bathroom—that’s clearly an area where you want to have handicap access,” Ms. Gobler said. “Right now, they have to go to the bathroom at the back of the building.”
“I think we’re going to get a lot of good things done,” added Mr. Babcock, who only joined the board in May. “I like the way it looks right now. At the end of the day I think we’re going to make the right decisions for the public.”
At a recent Board of Education meeting there was also some discussion about possibly expanding the bus loop near the main entrance, as well as upgrading the school’s HVAC system. Cynthia McNamara, a hamlet resident and former Board of Education member, then asked if the school playground could receive upgrades as well.
The district opted not to include those suggestions, with Mr. Grillo estimating that all three would have added another $2 million to the cost of the bond. “They probably could have made the bond bigger, but they want to keep it at the same tax rate,” Mr. Babcock said. “You start raising the taxes and people don’t want to see that.”
Impact On Taxpayers
Mr. Singer announced at the most recent Board of Education meeting that the district is trying to match its current debt service, meaning that, if approved, the $8.4 million bond would have a “zero to minimal” impact on taxes.
East Quogue School Board President Christopher Hudson said on Friday that he does not expect the district’s tax rate, which now stands at $11.50 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, to increase if the bond is approved next year. At the same time, Mr. Hudson stressed that it was too early to know for certain if the costs of the proposed work can be entirely offset.
Mr. Singer explained that the district’s current $6.9 million bond, which was approved in 1997 and used to construct the north wing of the elementary school, is on schedule to be retired in December 2018, reducing the district’s debt service by some $500,000 annually. If it finishes paying off the earlier bond without accumulating any additional debt, the district will no longer qualify for a $500,000 exemption, he added.
Essentially, the district’s $24.4 million budget for the current year would see a $500,000 reduction starting in the 2018-19 school year, according to Mr. Long. He added that school districts benefit when they have debt because they are then allowed certain exemptions that permit them to increase spending, with the state compensating them for the costs.
“We’re taught to pay off our debt,” Mr. Long said. “But that isn’t always the case.”
“What people don’t realize is, if we don’t put the bond in place, we end up hurting ourselves,” added Melissa Donahoe, a mother of two from East Quogue, during a recent meeting of the subcommittee.