The question whether the Cortland Enlarged City School District should sell the former Parker Elementary School is now up to registered voters whose ballots are due Tuesday on the sale, as well as the district’s budget and other questions.
If that answer is no, it’s back to square one for the school district, the city and the nonprofits that hope to establish a child-care facility there.
If it’s yes, the city Common Council would still have to vote to buy the building, in order to allow the nonprofits — CAPCO and the YWCA — to operate in the building.
But what does the community stand to gain out of a child-care facility in a 91-year-old building that the city would own? What risks would the arrangement entail?
Ballots are due by 5 p.m. Tuesday at the Kaufman Center at 1 Valley View Drive.
Mayor Brian Tobin said the proposed project, which was developed based on more than a year’s worth of community input, would fulfill several needs. It would provide a use for an empty building in the heart of the city that could otherwise become a blight in the neighborhood.
“It is a drain, and it will continue to be a drain on the community,” he said. “Vacant buildings are kind of like a wound. …We want people to live in a walkable, bikeable community. Why would you want to live in a community with a vacant school?”
The project, he said, would also provide a space for child care and early childhood learning, but also “an opportunity for a unique model,” since the two groups would be working together instead of in competition.
The cooperative model in one central space could also provide a model for other communities, said Lindy Glennon, the executive director of CAPCO.
“This is an opportunity for two strong nonprofits to come together and use their resources together to expand the reach that we already have,” Glennon said. Tobin also said the consolidation of child-care programs in one place would bring together children from different socioeconomic groups that might otherwise be separated.
But the project also has its critics, who question its necessity, and their criticisms have only grown sharper now that city, state and federal governments are facing massive revenue shortfalls because of the coronavirus pandemic.
For instance, Victoria Marsh, the main local moderator for Nextdoor.com, a neighborhood social media site, has posted a slew of critical comments and questions over the past week about the Parker school.
Marsh said relevant documents about the building and any transactions involving it have not been made readily available to the public. Two of those documents – a phase 1 environmental study and a building inspection report — were referenced at the Tuesday Common Council meeting by City Attorney Ric VanDonsel, but not included in the supplementary material to the agenda. VanDonsel told city officials the reports turned up nothing of significant concern. The Cortland Standard obtained a copy of the 481-page environmental report on Friday.
Marsh said she felt “everything here is being done by stealth,” and she was bothered that two of the main people involved in the project — the mayor and YWCA Executive Director Kelly Tobin — are married to each other. The YWCA, she argues, would benefit from the city buying the school.
“You can’t have a transaction where your wife is the beneficiary of the transaction,” she said. “This isn’t how a little community works.”
However, one critic, William Fiske, has changed his mind on the project.
Fiske spoke out against the city buying the building at the Common Council’s Jan. 7 meeting, citing concerns about potential problems that might lead to a financial burden for the city.
But the January resolution indicating the city’s intent to buy the building also included a provision that would enable the city to back out of the transaction if unforeseen problems cropped up. Fiske initially was concerned about the city making a bad investment, and he had wanted to make sure there was a way out. This provision changed his mind.
“I just didn’t want them to buy the proverbial pig in the poke,” Fiske said.
Since then, his position has shifted to “mildly in favor.” “I’m not wildly enthusiastic,” he said. “A zombie building of that size is also not something that the city needs by any means.”
Regarding concerns on funding of the project, Tobin said the city’s political allies — Assembly member Barbara Lifton (DUtica) and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) — have together pledged $1.1 million to get things rolling, and Tobin is convinced they’re good for it. Lifton has said she is confident the money, which comes from past state budgets and not this year’s, will not be affected by the state’s budget crunch.
“At times you have to have some faith,” he said.
But having powerful friends doesn’t hurt – such as Lifton, but especially Heastie.
“That’s not some somebody — that’s the speaker of the Assembly,” Tobin said. “If we’re not going to trust in our partners, then we’re not going to get anything done.”