Onteora board postpones reconfiguration decision by a week

(Photo by Lisa Childers)

After more than three hours were devoted to continued presentations, board discussions and two sections of public commentary on February 7 at Woodstock Elementary, trustees of the Onteora Central School District pushed back the date they expected to make the decision as to which of three proposed plans for reconfiguring the grade structure in its buildings it would choose.

As board members continued to be dogged by questions that reflect costs, the amount of staff that would be laid off, transportation and changes to how education is administered to children in each of the three proposed plans, they pushed the decision date back by a week, to 6 p.m. Tuesday, February 28, at the Middle/High School auditorium on the Boiceville campus.

Additionally, board members are mulling over what would be the final configuration of the third model, known as the bookend or Princeton plan — whether elementary schools in Phoenicia and Woodstock would house Kindergarten-grade 3 or stop at grade 2. In either case, under this proposal, the balance of students through grade 6 would go to Bennett Elementary, situated on the Boiceville campus. Such a model would save the $2,124,937 if voters approved a budget in May that contained an increase of two percent in the tax levy for the 2012/2013 school year, thus meeting the state imposed tax cap.


In the other two proposals being considered, Phoenicia Elementary School would be closed. In one scenario, Woodstock Elementary would house grades K-3 (or K-2) and Bennett would educate grades 4-6 (or 3-6). District estimates say that would save $2,613,006 over current spending plans. The third proposal under scrutiny provides for closing Phoenicia Elementary School and having both Bennett and Woodstock Elementary Schools operate at K-grade 6. The savings for this model, according to the district’s presentation would be $2,213,965. Each scenario would be accompanied by more than two dozen layoffs in teaching and support staff.

Dozens of people spoke, some in favor of closing Phoenicia elementary, while others were against. Alfred Higley, a member of Shandaken town board read a one-page resolution passed by the town board in support of keeping Phoenicia school open. He said that the board, “vehemently opposes any plan that closes the Phoenicia elementary school and robs our residents and their children of convenient localized education opportunities for their younger children, disregards the needs of the local economy and businessmen and residents that assist with, sponsor and pay for school programs…” The resolution listed how the school acts as a community center including athletic, educational, social programs during the evenings, weekends and summer that are sponsored by the town.

Woodstock PTA co-presidents Jill Schwartz and Lorelei Voelker presented data from an unofficial survey the PTA conducted by reaching out to families and staff. Out of 310 surveys distributed, 118 responded, with 83 percent preferring two Kindergarten-through-grade six schools and opting to close Phoenicia. Ten percent preferred a three-school bookend model. “This is clearly an informal survey. We are not statisticians, we’ve yet to ascertain how many families are actually in our school,” said Schwartz. “This was just an attempt to be more democratic in hearing from our school.”

Woodstock parent Lisa Harmon said many Woodstock parents are not keen to any of the models. “I think that our children in Woodstock and West Hurley would be better served by a k-through-eight charter school.” She also suggested leaving the Onteora district and joining with Zena elementary independently, “a school that is also struggling.” However, past Woodstock town supervisor Jeff Moran sought out information during his first term to see if that was possible, sketching a district that would envelope all of Woodstock, including the Zena area currently in the Kingston City School District and West Hurley into its own school district. But he found that state officials would be the deciding factor on this and not local officials, and that it would be an improbable task. Currently Woodstock is fragmented into three school districts with students in Saugerties and Kingston, with the majority of children in Onteora.


Small financial difference, percentage-wise

Some who support closing Phoenicia elementary and keeping two kindergarten-through-grade six models at Woodstock and Bennett called for voters to reject any budget that calls for the state maximum two percent tax levy increase if the board chooses to keep Phoenicia school open. If the board of education’s budget proposals are rejected by voters twice, the district would be forced to operate under the current budget, with no increases, necessitating the cutting of an additional $571,489 from the latest draft spending plan.

“I’m firmly of the belief that our focus should be primarily educational,” said trustee Laurie Osmond. “I just wanted to address a couple of financial things since we have heard from certain community members who feel we should be talking primarily about finance.” Osmond said after doing some math she broke the proposed $52 million budget down to percentages and compared it to the three models. For the model that would have two Kindergarten-grade 6 buildings and close Phoenicia elementary, savings are projected at 3.9 percent. The second model that would have one Kindergarten-grade 3 building and one grade 4-6 school would have a projected savings of 4.46 percent. In the third, with two K-3 buildings and one 4-6, savings of 3.78 percent are projected. “This differential spread of all three options is less than one percent of our total budget or .86 percent.” She added that all options have less than one percentage point between them so financially the difference is, “very, very small.”

School administrators presented some specifics as to how education would proceed if the district were to adopt the bookend plan (K-3 in Woodstock and Phoenicia, grades 4-6 at Bennett, no closings) by using project based learning. Focus leaned towards changes at Bennett Elementary. Bell time for students grade 4-12 would be moved up by 15 minutes, creating a slightly later start time for teenagers.

Clustered grade levels would provide more time for classes, over an hour compared to current 40-minute blocks where curriculum is generally taught separately.

Teachers and subjects would overlap, using a hands-on curriculum with longer time spent in a group setting (as opposed to rows of desks).

Superintendent Dr. Phyllis Spiegel-McGill, who favors the bookend plan not only as a way to save district money, but also an opportunity to improve academic standards, said time would be spent on meaningful problem solving where subjects such as social studies, science and art overlap. “What it is, is a full in depth exploration, some of the questions they’re going to be answering will require mathematical skills, require reading writing listening and speaking skills.”

Some parents objected to the cost it may take for teachers to learn the new methods. But McGill explained all three models will shake up staff on all levels, and that retraining will be needed regardless of the outcome.

Music programs and lessons would be taught during school hours, and, “afterschool enrichment programs will still be on offer with afterschool transportation and extended time for ensembles and chorus.”

Trustee Tony Fletcher asked if any curriculum changes would be made if two schools remained a Kindergarten-through-six and Phoenicia closed as opposed to a grade cluster in Bennett. McGill said because the upper grades would be split, “You would not have the intermediate richness, getting all those teachers together and collaborating — you know four teachers as opposed to two.” The extra-curricular music programs would be split in two, (as opposed to under one roof with grade clustering) and its future in jeopardy since it would cut into school hours, a problem McGill explained as the state ups it’s academic standards.

Students in grades four (or three) through twelve would be riding the same buses leading some to voice concern over younger children mixing with high schoolers. Board members discussed bringing intervention programs to buses such as PBIS (positive behavior intervention support), in addition to addressing the current high number of elementary children, around 60, that have received referrals for behavior problems on the bus. ++


There are 4 comments

  1. Lisa Luborsky

    an annual savings difference of $89,000 in a proposed $2,000,000 + savings hardly seems worth closing a school. You can’t go back once you close. With the K-6 proposal, Phoenicia Elementary will be cut in half according to where people live. These children will not only lose their school but at least half of their friends that they grew up with depending upon where they live. Despite popular belief, Phoenicia elementary is more than just a building, there are children there too. My children are there. I am so disappointed in the divisiveness that has come from these proposals. I attended a rally in Albany a month ago of over 500 attendees from 60 different districts all coming together to call on our government to address this public education tragedy that is going on in NYS. We were all there fighting for the same cause, our children and their education… not about pushing to close a neighboring school.. Very sad

  2. Lisa Lorme

    My comments were attributed to Lisa “Harmon”. I don’t know if such person exists but if she does,I hope she agrees with me. Otherwise,I imagine this would be very annoying to her.

  3. Wendy Wolfenson

    Financial costs have not been accurately reported by the Administration or the Board of Education. So far, the press has been complicit in furthering this campaign of misinformation. Speakers repeatedly question the failure to consider the obvious and large savings derived from closing a building, such as utilities and infrastructure repairs (which are never included in the numbers because they would make the Bookend Plan look even more unattractive). Due to its obviously partisan position, the Administration continually ignores these complaints by the public and the press refuses to report this or call them to task.

  4. steve stellavato

    As a Bennett parent, I am not in favor of “closing Phoenicia” as some sort of default position. The issues are academic benefits, excessive transitions, and transportation. I will support the plan that best suits my child’s needs, just as supporters of Bookends do. The continual insinuation that by not supporting Bookends, I *want* to close Phoenicia is inaccurate, narcissistic, and manipulative. It is an attempt to limit my ability to advocate for and protect the educational and physical well-being of my child–and to hijack the conversation away from the real issues. Your argument is with the Board and Dr. McGill: They put forth the plans, not me.

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