Mineola school budget continues emphasis on capital projects

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A rendering of the proposed extension to the Mineola High School gymnasium. (Image from the Mineola school district)

The Mineola school district plans to spend an extra $2.5 million on capital projects in its next budget, continuing what officials said is a long-needed investment in school buildings.

The district plans to transfer $4 million in reserve funds to its capital budget, up from $1.5 million this year, to add 2,500 square feet to a planned second gym at Mineola High School, district Superintendent Michael Nagler said.

“We have the money. Let’s do a project, let’s do it right and build it for the future,” Nagler said at the Mineola school board’s meeting last Thursday.

The school board will likely vote April 20 to adopt the proposed $91.8 million budget for the 2017-18 school year.

Taking the extra money from its “undesignated fund balance” will drive the district’s reserves below 4 percent, the maximum allowed under state law, Nagler said.

But it will not affect the $78.8 million tax levy, which is set to increase 0.89 percent, the maximum allowed this year under the state’s tax cap law.

The district is also seeking voter approval to spend $4.2 million from a capital reserve fund to build new classrooms and a new hallway at the Meadow Drive School and to fund part of the addition to the high school gym.

Nagler proposed making the extension larger after speaking with the high school’s Winterguard team, which competes in color guard competitions in winter months, he said.

The team currently practices in the school’s cafeteria, and the initial plans for the gym were not large enough to fit its practice mat, Nagler said. Dance classes and sports teams will also use the space, he said.

This year’s projects reflect the district’s recent attention to renovating its schools after several years of putting them on the back burner, Christine Napolitano, the school board president, said.

“We had a lot to catch up on,” she said.

The proposed 2017-18 budget includes seven projects on a list of more than 20 that the district wants to address in the next five years. The current year’s budget funded nine of them.

The budget maintains $830,000 in facilities spending but decreases equipment spending by $145,000 to $655,000.

In addition to the high school gym extension and Meadow Drive School work, the budget would pay to refurbish the gyms at the Jackson Avenue and Hampton Avenue schools; buy a new public address system for the high school; install bleachers at the high school athletic field and in the Mineola Middle School gymnasium; and install air conditioning in middle school classrooms.

The district last borrowed money for building projects in 2003, and since 2008 all spending for them has been spent from the budget or reserve funds, Nagler said.

The district will likely be able to replenish the $2.5 million in its reserves at the end of the current fiscal year, Nagler said. But the project’s cost could grow if it gets stuck in a plan review backlog in the state Education Department, he said.

Plans for renovations at the Hampton Street School, first approved by voters in December 2015, are still awaiting approval, making the project more expensive because the original cost estimates are now more than a year old, Nagler said.

“When it takes 30 weeks to approve something and you’re going over two budgets, it’s very difficult to plan,” he said.

The district submitted plans for the new athletic field, classroom and cafeteria at Hampton Street in January 2016, according to the Education Department’s website. The department needs additional information about one set of plans, but a second has not been reviewed, the website says.

Districts are currently waiting an average of 24 to 26 weeks for engineering approvals, which require the most intensive review, the website says. The department has attributed the delays to a lack of engineers to review complex plans.

Despite the risks, Mineola school board members said they favored going ahead with the larger gym extension rather than building it too small and regretting it later.

Margaret Ballantyne-Mannion, the school board’s vice president, said she likes that the extra capital spending supports “hands-on experiences” for students.

“These kinds of spaces are exactly the kind of future schools that we are building program-wise, so we now need the space to accomplish these things,” Ballantyne-Mannion said.

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