With emotions running high at the Tuesday, January 24 board of education meeting at Phoenicia Elementary, Onteora trustees chose a tentative date of February 21 as the evening they will choose from three proposed plans to reconfigure the grade and building structures of the district. Two of the proposed plans, which are all intended to deal with tight budgets and dwindling populations while enhancing educative possibilities, would close Phoenicia Elementary School, leaving the district with two primary schools, one in Woodstock and the other at Bennett, at the Boiceville campus that also houses administrative offices and the Middle/High School,
Trustee Dan Spencer asked to keep the date as a soft target, to make sure all information is gathered in time. There is only one school board meeting is scheduled before that date, on February 7 at Woodstock Elementary. “Maybe were done next date, but as a back up plan…maybe you’re open to a quick special meeting?” The board agreed if all information wasn’t in by February 21, an additional meeting following it would be scheduled solely for the sake of voting, though trustees pointed out that time is essential with budget season approaching.
The three plans include one which would keep Phoenicia open. In that version, popularly knows as the ‘bookends’ plan, Phoenicia and Woodstock would house Kindergarten through grade 3, while Bennett, would be dedicated to grades 4 through 6, in a system called grade clustering, or alternately, a Princeton plan. In another version of grade clustering, Woodstock would be the sole kindergarten through grade 3 facility, while Bennett would house grades 4 through 6. A third version envisions that Bennett and Woodstock would each house Kindergarten through grade 6, with Phoenicia’s population being split between the two while it closed.
Anger, tears and questions were directed at the board of education as the meeting stretched on, with dozens of people speaking both in favor and against versions of the plans (see Point of View, Page 18, and Feedback sections for public comments.)
After the public weighed in, board members spoke and answered concerns from parents. Most board members appeared to focus on the grade clustering configuration that would create a district wide grade 4-through-6 intermediate school at Bennett. However, Trustee Michael McKeon, who said he was still in “listening mode,” requested a mental walk through of what a school day would look like using a 4-through-6 configuration versus a new option, a grade 3-through-6. The board will discuss the two options focused on the grade clustering plan February 7 and also show differences in how education is administered compared to a Kindergarten-through-6 model.
By using the 4-through-6 configuration, younger children would ride the same school bus with Middle/High schoolers and this has left a voiced worry among parents. But trustee Laurie Osmond said the district already transports Kindergarten-through-grade 12 students to the Woodstock Day School and has been doing it uninterrupted for years. “We’ve been doing the very thing that people are afraid, so I just thought I’d put that out there.” According to District Clerk, Fern Amster, currently Onteora transports 71 students to the Day School and uses three buses on three different bus routes. Because they’re on the same bell schedule, all students are transported together. Superintendent Dr. Phyllis Spiegel-McGill listed the number of referrals for problem behavior coming from Onteora students when riding the bus. To date in 2011/2012, in the elementary schools there have been 60 bus referrals, the Middle/High School total received 18 — two at the Middle School and 16 from High School students. “That number really concerns me on the Elementary level,” said McGill. But it also gives an indication that not much is happening behavior wise at the upper levels.
Where were the savings with West Hurley?
School trustee Tony Fletcher spoke in depth, presenting data based on researched grade configurations and school closures. He said that Onteora isn’t alone when it comes to district finances being squelched by the two percent tax cap Governor Andrew Cuomo initiated. “We are all running out of money statewide,” said Fletcher, “and board members (throughout the state) believe Cuomo is intentionally doing that in order for districts to go bankrupt so the State can take it over.” Onteora is in better shape than most districts, but according to a recent report by Dr. Richard Timbs of Donegan consulting firm, the district is projected to run a deficit of $11.3 million by 2017 if no changes are undertaken.
In two of the proposed plans, with voters approving a two percent tax levy increase each year, by 2017 the district debt would still be $2.29 million to $2.7 million. Only the configuration that proposed one Kindergarten-through-3 school and one 4-through-6 school showed a positive financial result, of $168,543. All trustees voiced concern that the district will continue to decline in finances, no matter what action is taken.
Fletcher noted that the Rondout Valley school district is also running a large projected deficit, voted to close a school and is leaning towards creating a grade four-through-six intermediate school. He listed other schools in the county that have proposed closing a school. “I’d like to point out that we already have closed a school, we closed West Hurley,” he said, noting the district is one step ahead of the curve having closed it in 2004. Financially, he believes, closing West Hurley didn’t save the district and it still bleeds money by requiring the district to minimally heat it and keep the pipes from freezing.
“The budget for the next school year (in 2005, after West Hurley closed) increased by six percent,” said Fletcher. “So where is the savings? The year after that it went up four percent followed by over three percent. By comparison the two budget seasons I’ve been on this board we kept all three schools open and did so by budget increases of .31 percent and 1.04 percent, the lowest in at least 15 years and probably a lot longer.” Fletcher has actively been against closing an additional elementary school since it was first proposed by a previous school board in 2008. He and Trustee Tom Hickey referenced the New York State School Boards Association guidebook.
“Don’t regard school closures and consolidations primarily as money savings techniques,” Fletcher read. “They are more than that. They are actions of paramount importance, affecting the entire district’s education policy and organization. Never close a school only because it would save the district money. It may do so, but it may also create community and employee turmoil, shortchange the students and bring on demands for changes in board membership.”
Fletcher listed costs savings and an educational quality boost by consolidating grades 4-through-6. Trustee Laurie Osmond added that with two Kindergarten-through-six buildings, teachers and specialists would need to be doubled up. Instead, she said, with Kindergarten-through-3 configuration, concentration can be placed on early intervention, along with project based learning with team teaching for the upper intermediate grades. “It’s been brought up that children in grades seven-through-eight levels are not performing as well as they should and an alarming large percentage of them (are not meeting State standards),” Osmond said. “So to me, I would question the status quo and question the K-6 grade configuration, as having mediocre results when they go to the middle school. We’ve heard for years [that] the problem is the middle school. Well maybe it isn’t the middle school but what’s been happening in education as the children get to the middle school.” Osmond explained that two kindergarten-through-6 schools would have much of the same and wouldn’t add a quality to education.
School Board President Ann McGillicuddy wanted to clear up a few facts that she felt were being falsely passed around throughout the community. Phoenicia Elementary currently houses 212 students, Bennett 234 and Woodstock houses 255. Student population for the year 2021 is projected at 1185. ++