City officials, education leaders discuss Parker School childhood education project status

Cortland Enlarged City School District (CECSD) officials and city leaders are working on transferring property ownership of the former Alton B. Parker School site, as a new mayoral administration in Cortland gears up to oversee the development of the Cortland Community Early Learning Center (CCELC) at the former elementary school.

The CCELC, which was approved by members of the Common Council late last year, would consolidate early childhood education services provided by the YWCA and the Cortland County Community Action Program (CAPCO). 

Both organizations provided early childhood services to 99 children as old as five prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to financial strain and COVID-19 health and safety regulations, that number is now down to 40.

At a previous common council meeting, YWCA executive director Kelly Tobin noted part of the goal of the CCELC is to raise the number of children served by the programs back to 99(at the minute 38 mark in the video).

According to former city mayor Brian Tobin, the building’s renovation project has been broken down into five phases and would have a price tag of $3.5 million based on an assessment conducted by an architect in 2020. The former mayor continued and admitted in the past that the total price tag will be higher in future assessments based on a rise in material costs.

It has also been estimated that the city would need approximately $1.1 million to retrofit the classrooms, renovate the playground and upgrade outdoor safety. This would allow the facility to open its doors, which Brian Tobin has mentioned at previous Common Council meetings.

“With some light work, CAPCO could occupy a portion of the building quickly,” B. Tobin said in a statement issued in October of last year. He noted the city is aiming for full occupancy in September of next year. “For the YWCA and some of CAPCO’s classes, we would need to complete phases one through three for full occupancy.”

Where does the project stand now?

After Brian Tobin confirmed and closed on the property and agreed to a purchased price of $91 on Dec. 27, both the CECSD and the city’s new mayoral administration are discussing a tentative date by which the district can turn the costs of services over to the city.

“We are working on that process of transitioning the building now to the city. That would really entail getting the services turned over,” CECSD superintendent Bob Edwards said. “We don’t have a set date yet, but we are looking to have all of our things out of the buildings by February. That would be best for the city because they want to get busy with their work.”

The annual cost of maintenance on the building is currently at $96,000 for CECSD, Edwards said.

“That does include our data services, which is something that may or may not be an expense moving forward. (It depends) on who would assume the building,” Edwards said. “We have a $25,000 cost in data and I wouldn’t assume moving forward that somebody else would have that cost. I don’t know how city buildings work.”

The data services portion of the expenditures covers “a cost to run data and run the computerized services that are within the system,” Edwards said. He added that all CECSD buildings have a yearly data expense.

“(The $96,000) also includes water, sewer, gas, electric, all of the protections, including the alarm system, and the fire protection cost,” Edwards added. “Maintenance costs also include service on the equipment in the building, as it is mandatory for us to do fire inspections as well.”

In a Dec. 31 interview with The Cortland Voice, then-mayor-elect Scott Steve said there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the CCELC project. Despite the uncertainty, Steve added he is not opposed to the project and will “do everything I can to make it work.”

“Right now I don’t have a pre-design. I don’t even know what the project is going to look like,” Steve said. “I don’t even know who is going to take it. The YWCA and CAPCO don’t even know who is going to be in that room. They are going to be there, but they are not going to use up the whole building. They don’t have use for (the whole building).”

Breaking down present and impending costs of the building

Steve said that he met and corresponded with involved parties, including Kelly Tobin and Edwards. Conversations occurred in between the time when he was elected mayor and before the sale of the building was completed in late December.

“I looked over the financials and I said: ‘you guys are not prepared to pay the utilities. You don’t have the funding,’” Steve said. He recounted a conversation with members of the YWCA and CAPCO. “They said ‘yes, you are right. We can afford that once we put people in there, when we are using it for a program, but we can’t afford it prior to that.’”

Steve’s plan was to get an architect to assess costs for the project based on more recent estimates ahead of the sale of the property.

“We put out a request for proposal out for an architect to come look at what that building needs done,” he said. “We bring in the architect and get the key role players in one room. We get (an average pricing) for them, and we sit down and come up with a preliminary design.”

With a preliminary design on paper, Steve said it would be possible to assess the financial viability of what the key stakeholders need.

“We take that preliminary design to the head of the childhood education agencies to get their pre-approval, (and) make sure this design works,” he said. “With very little money spent, we have an idea of what we want to do, an idea of what it is going to cost. Now, we close on the property.”

Concerned about the financial viability of acquiring the property without having a preliminary design, Steve said the burden of maintenance costs should not go to city taxpayers.

“(I would have killed that deal) if (the YWCA and CAPCO) cannot afford it,” Steve said. “Why should the city? Taxpayers cannot pay for that. It is not benefiting them.”

Despite the initial financial concerns, Steve said the project would stabilize once agencies take over and start using the building.

“I think once the buildout is done, they will be able to manage and use the building. They are going to be fine,” he said. “Getting there is not going to be easy this year. Doing that buildout, (they are) spending $1 million in asbestos abatement and $2 million on (a) heating system put in. That is $3 million, (so) stop there. They have no way to hurdle that.”

The city currently has close to $2 million in the coffers for work on the building, Brain Tobin said.

Former assemblywoman Barbara Lifton secured $1.1 million of those funds. The city also received $200,000 from a grant from the Central New York Regional Economic Development Council and a $500,000 grant from the New York State Empire State Development agency. Additionally, the council also approved a resolution in October that would allow the city to put use up to $180,000 from the city’s allocation of American Rescue Plan Act federal funds to request proposals from architects to assess what it would cost for the project to move forward.

The Cortland Voice recently asked Kelly Tobin for a status update on the CCELC project. Kelly Tobin noted “there are no updates for me to report at this time.”

“We will defer comment to the mayor at this time,” said Greg Richards, executive director at CAPCO. “However, we are working with and in communication with the mayor on this project as we work as a collaborative partner with other lead agencies and community stakeholders to continue to move the project forward.”