Discussions of proposed expansion to the parking lot at the Chatham High School dominated the conversation during the final budget hearing, held during Monday’s meeting of the Board of Education.
Proposed as part of the capital projects portion of the $60 million budget, the parking lot , according to board president Steve Barna.
However, as board members stated several times throughout the discussion, the extent of parking lot construction depends on how much funding is left over after the top capital budget priority, the addition of four classrooms at the high school, is completed.
Of the $2 million allocated to capital projects, funded by money accrued over time and only usable on projects such as this, approximately $1.6 million is estimated for the classroom addition. That leaves $400,000 for parking lot construction.
Superintendent Jim O’Neill said the board and district are working on the assumption that, in the current economy, bids will come in at less than $2 million for the classroom addition. However, the higher the bid for the classroom additions, the smaller the parking lot construction project becomes.
“In this case, we are projecting what we believe would be the largest size parking space we could construct,” O’Neill said. “If extra funds aren’t available, we would have to downsize [parking lot construction] to live within the budget.”
Reasons for Extending Parking
Chatham High School Principal Darren Groh explained that constructing a new parking lot is not a sudden idea but one that has been batted around for six or seven years.
Attendance at the high school has increased steadily over that time period, with the current group of kids numbering more than 1,100 students, up from about 650 students 15 years ago and projected to hit more than 1,400 in the next few years, according to O’Neill.
Therefore, the senior class, which is allowed to drive and park at the school by paying a $6 to share a parking spot with another student for half a year, continues to increase as well. With the current amount of 243 seniors vying for 116 spaces—and 294 seniors set for the 2011-2012 school year—not to mention the 98 spots dedicated to faculty parking, both Groh and O’Neill agreed that the lot has become overcrowded.
“The high school has basically not added any parking spaces since the building was built,” O’Neill said. “But now there are far more kids able to drive than we are able to accommodate.”
As a result, O’Neill said, many seniors, who have open campus and can leave school grounds during their free periods, use the Colony Pool parking lot and have to walk to the high school.
With cars occasionally speeding through the area and the roads students have to walk from the parking lot to the school and back lacking sidewalks, safety is a big concern, he said.
“We’ve had several occasions where kids have been hit by vehicles,” O’Neill said, noting that kids have been hit while crossing the street both on foot and while riding bikes. “And there have been numerous times when we’ve had near hits and near misses that have given us concern for the potential of much more serious accidents.”
Groh said this was the best option to solve the parking problem after a number of ideas—the product of a number of brainstorms with the administration and a student-comprised advisory committee—were deemed inoperable. One such idea was to have parking spaces be first-come-first-serve.
“We realized that would be too dangerous,” Groh said. “We decided it would be too much of a free-for-all, especially when looking at 243 seniors, on top of another 900 families of underclassmen dropping their kids off at school.”
O’Neill also mentioned that the district had looked into other parking expansion options around the campus but deemed that the considered spaces would accommodate fewer cars and end up being more expensive per space.
A handful of township residents, mostly those who live in the direct vicinity of the high school, gathered at the meeting to express dislike about the proposed parking expansion.
Latching on to O’Neill’s safety reasoning, some offered their own alternative suggestions on how to improve safety without expanding the parking lot, including paving sidewalks and stationing a police officer near the Colony parking lot.
Stating that many high school students often have a sense of entitlement when it comes to driving or getting rides to school, resident Kathy Abbott suggested fostering a walking-focused culture for students by paving a path from Longwood Avenue to the back of the school. This way, she said, students wouldn’t have to worry about walking through a muddy field.
In addition to safety concerns, a few residents argued that the resources of the Colony parking lot should be exhausted first before any other parking spaces are considered and that the “green” aesthetic of the field would be ruined by additional parking.
Floral Street resident Karen Jackson also wanted to speak about the parking expansion but was supportive of the plan.
“If you have money in the budget and have the opportunity to deal with it now, you should deal with it now,” Jackson said.
Following the parking discussion, the budget was unanimously approved by the board during the meeting to be submitted to voters.
The board was required to send the budget to Executive County Superintendent Kathleen Serafino, which they did the week of Feb. 28. Serafino approved the preliminary budget from the School District of the Chathams without changes, meaning the budget plan cannot be altered between now and the time of the vote.
There will be two more budget presentations—one to the Washington Street School on April 13 and one on April 20 at Chatham High School—before it goes to a vote on April 27.