This is the greatest debate over community, real estate, and economic reality to come the way of the Five Towns in quite a while. The issue is what to do with the sprawling, long-vacated property of the Number Six School in Woodmere.
There were lots of hopes, dreams, and even rumors about the property. The JCC of the Five Towns was very definitive that not only did they want the property to build a proper state-of-the-art community facility, they felt that they deserved it, and more than that, the community deserved it. Their bid, however, came up short and they took themselves out of the running.
Then there was the story floating around that HALB coveted the property and was willing to sell the building where its elementary school is located on Long Beach and move that school over to the Woodmere site. But HALB and school-board officials with knowledge of the inner workings of the sale process say that HALB was never interested in moving there.
And then there is the Shulamith School for Girls, a growing school presently scattered over several buildings in Woodmere that desperately wants to centralize, develop a campus, open a high school, and build in the Five Towns what they once had in Brooklyn years ago.
All of that bidding was interesting and competitive, until the matter of money and business entered the equation. A few weeks ago, the Lawrence District School Board, in a 4—1 vote (with one abstention and one member absent), decided to sell the property to the Simone Realty Group, a Westchester-based corporation that specializes in setting up community medical facilities and doctors’ offices.
The group that was awarded the Number Six School contract is affiliated with Mount Sinai Hospital and won the bidding with a $12.5 million tender. The team overseeing the project–that is lawyers, doctors, and real-estate people–understands that there are objections to the project and is beginning to mount a campaign to educate the community about the important nature of this medical facility.
I spent close to an hour in discussion last week with a number of people involved in the project, analyzing and listening to plans to integrate the new facility into the community so that it meshes with rather than being obtrusive or disturbing the quality of life in any way. The doctors and the construction and medical oversight staff are very sensitive to the community’s needs and concerns.
Two pieces of information are vital at this point. One is that there will be a district-wide referendum on March 20, when the community residents can vote to accept or reject the school board’s recommendation that the development of the Number Six School property by the Simone Group proceed. Secondly, if it is approved, it will likely take up to two years for the facility to become fully functional.
Dr. Simeon Schwartz of Westmed Practice Partners is the head design consultant for Mount Sinai on this project. He speaks eloquently and with insight into what he believes the new facility will mean for the community. “I believe we are looking at what will ultimately be a one-stop shop for all ambulatory care–that is any type of medical care that does not require hospitalization,” he says.
Dr. Schwartz says that the new facility will feature offices for about 60 doctors, with many services available seven days a week from 7:30 a.m. until 10 p.m. He says that a great deal of what takes place at the new medical center will be directly coordinated with physicians and staff at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan. “The type of medical care dispensed will be coordinated and integrated care,” Dr. Schwartz says. And he adds that of even greater importance is that the medical services available at the Woodmere location will cost patients “drastically less–as much as 75% less” than similar care dispensed in the city.
But there still is marked opposition to the plan by some community leaders and many community residents, especially those who live adjacent to the property and fear the quality of life being altered in the area. Lawn signs have popped up over the last few weeks urging district residents to “Vote No” in the referendum.
Dr. Asher Mansdorf, president of the District 15 school board, says that the sale to the medical group is the proper and responsible move for the community. He understands that his position is bold and controversial, but says that those who oppose the deal with the medical people are refusing to see the big picture.
“The board has the obligation, amongst other things, to manage the finances of the district schools.” The salient points here are that the annual budget of the district is $94 million. Despite the pressures for costs to balloon as they continue to do in other school districts, like the neighboring #14 district, this board has held the line on costs, and except for slight adjustments that are mandated by law, has held the line on spending. The result has been, so far, that school taxes have not been substantially increased in the district for more than five years.
But residents who live near the Number Six School, and especially those who send their children to the Shulamith School for Girls, see nothing wrong with the board–which has six members of the Orthodox Jewish community serving on it–acting in a partisan fashion and awarding the property to Shulamith even though the medical center would generate significantly more income for the school district.
As we reported previously here, there is a sense out there that the board’s obligation should primarily be that of education and not real-estate dealing. It is specifically on this issue that Dr. Mansdorf and the majority of his board disagree.
Dr. Mansdorf cites pages of case law that over the years has embroiled the East Ramapo (Monsey) school district in a number of lawsuits specifically over the matter of trying to sell underused public-school buildings to yeshivas in that community. The Ramapo district is significantly larger than the Lawrence District, with 21,000 students in yeshivas and 8,000 attending the public schools. In our local district there are 4,000 students in yeshivas and 3,500 in the public schools.
Some of the case law furnished to the 5TJT in reference to one of those Ramapo transactions includes positions such as, “It is well settled that when selling real property, a board of education has a fiduciary duty to secure the best price obtainable in the board’s judgment for any lawful use of the premises.”
Other statements include, “If a board of education abuses its discretion or acts in an arbitrary or capricious manner with respect to the sale of a piece of property, the sale may be set aside.”
And that is the direction that Asher Mansdorf and other board members who voted with him feel this sale would be headed in if they went ahead and, despite the significantly higher bid by the Simone Group, approved the sale to the Shulamith School. He adds that if they went ahead anyway and advocated for the sale to the yeshiva, there is a good chance that the sale would be challenged in court or by the state Education Department in a process that could tie everyone up for years.
The attorney for the Simone Group, Ben Weinstock, a resident of Woodmere and a trustee and deputy mayor of the neighboring Village of Cedarhurst, points out that the selection of the school over the medical center is not such an obvious or simple one, and those who prefer the yeshiva should take a second look at the situation. He points out that while the Shulamith School currently has about 600 students, the goal over the next few years is to open a high school on the proposed premises and ultimately be a campus of over 1,300 students. Mr. Weinstock says that in order to educate that many students the school will need upward of 300 employees, including teachers and administrators along with support staff. “The staff is going to need parking spaces, and they are talking about leaving the ball fields and playground intact; where are all those people going to park their cars?” he asks.
And, he adds, the idea of maintaining the playground and ball fields seems to be amongst the greatest selling points of the school. He points out, however, that campaigning to keep these grounds open to the public is not as simple as it appears on the surface. First, he says, the school will not allow use of the fields on Shabbos or on yom tov. Then, he says, there are serious liability issues attached to allowing unfettered access to the fields and playground which can make the school vulnerable to lawsuits.
Mr. Weinstock says that the community needs to understand what is involved in running schools and a school district. “Everything a school district does for students and the community costs money,” he says, and the money needs to come from somewhere. To that end, and possibly the most glaring difference between the two prospective buyers, is that the medical facility will be taxed at $1 million per year while the school will be tax-exempt.
For his part, Dr. Schwartz of Mount Sinai says that he is excited about the great contribution the medical facility will be able to make to the community. The hope is that amongst those moving their offices to the new location will be a number of popular local doctors. “It will be a community facility that is about wellness, not illness,” Dr. Schwartz says. He says that the medical facility is looking forward to embracing and working with the community. He adds that there will be a kosher cafeteria on the grounds and that a good number of employment opportunities will be available to local residents.
At the end of the day, it is the people in the community who will do the deciding when they cast their votes in the March 20 referendum. In the meantime, the campaigns for the hearts, minds, and attention of the community will likely intensify over the next few weeks. Lawn signs are already out there imploring residents to vote “no” to the sale. The medical people are planning a series of Town Hall-type meetings to present their case to the community.
It’s a good communal debate with many cogent arguments on both sides. It seems that there are no shortcuts to obtaining, building, and developing a state-of-the-art institution, educational or otherwise. What the community will decide is, at this point, anyone’s guess. As far as the board is concerned, it looks like they had less of a choice than the community will have. They had to go with the money because that’s what the law seems to say. The people will get their say on March 20. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at email@example.com.