New Bill Puts Rye Country Day Interests Above Those of Most Residents
Recently, Governor Cuomo signed into law Assemblyman Steve Otis’s 2019 Thruway Purchase bill, assuring its continuing controversy. Why the controversy? The new bill allows Rye Country Day School to buy a parcel of NYS-owned land for “recreational and educational purposes.” It earmarks the land for Rye Country Day and no other buyer, at a guaranteed price, without the usual hurdle of a public auction. In return, the school must make the facilities “available for rental to public recreation groups for no less than 29% of usable hours in the course of each calendar year.” Sounds fair, right?
Well, no. The current bill replaces a 2017 bill that gave Rye Country Day the same special treatment but required a shared use agreement with the City in return. The new bill requires no agreement. In return for earmarked land and a set price, it requires the school to offer its athletic facilities for rental (which it does already). However, it leaves the school free to charge rental fees that are higher than market value or define “usable hours” loosely, thereby making the facilities effectively unavailable to public user groups.
Rye Country Day School (RCDS) is a good neighbor. I trust they won’t take advantage of this carte blanche. However, we have no guarantee that future administrations will be so accommodating. The old bill’s shared use agreement would have been a better recompense for special treatment than the new bill’s toothless requirement.
Not surprisingly, some people are angry at Assemblyman Otis. They note that he attended RCDS; his mother taught at RCDS; he gave RCDS’s 2018 commencement speech; he plays hockey at RCDS; and he’s friendly with RCDS board members and administrators. They think he was wrong to advance the interests of his alma mater above the interests of most Rye residents.
The angry people include Mayor Josh Cohn and most members of the City Council. The Council had been negotiating a shared use agreement with the school under the 2017 bill, only to have the 2019 bill sabotage their efforts. Adding insult to injury, Assemblyman Otis wrote the 2019 bill without consulting them. He didn’t even inform them. It took them entirely by surprise. When they learned of it, they were at first flabbergasted, then furious.
(He did the same thing to Mayor Joe Sack in 2017. At the time, I defended Assemblyman Otis. I was wrong to do so. Joe, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry.)
The Council believes the school and City would have found common ground had Assemblyman Otis not intervened. The Assemblyman disagrees. He says RCDS’s lawyers were on the verge of walking away from negotiations. If this is true, it begs the question: Without meaningful giveback, why does the school deserve a special deal on public land? They could still have acquired it in the normal way; that is, buying it at auction, where it would have been unencumbered by ethical obligations to its current owners, the public.
- Meg Cameron