Districts looking to close or consolidate local schools

Saugerties superintendent Seth Turner. Saugerties considered closing a school last year, but decided against it (photo by Dion Ogust)

Nearly every local school district is looking at closing a school or drastically reconfiguring its district to save money.

Closing a school, no matter how small, is a difficult, highly emotional process for a community. But they voted to do it in Kingston.

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In Onteora, they’re talking about closing an elementary school and totally reorganizing the other two.

Districts in the southern part of the county — New Paltz, Highland and Marlboro — haven’t talked about closing a school. But the change they’ve mulled is no less dramatic: a mega-district including all three.

On the north end, Saugerties seemed poised last year to grapple seriously with closing one of its four elementary schools, but the effort seems to have died. An ad hoc volunteer committee looked into the issue last year, and based on its recommendations, the district concluded that closing an elementary school wasn’t “feasible.” But some felt the volunteer approach was unsatisfactory for such a complex issue, and the district should have sprung for a consultant to produce a report.

 

Why it’s happening

The issue is being forced by larger trends. Just as a housing bubble was inflating over the last decade, so too was a kind of state aid bubble. Many school districts built new buildings, renovated, expanded administration and inked generous contracts with employees during this period. When the recession hit, stimulus money from the federal government helped districts meet their obligations. But that’s gone now. With the passage of last year’s two-percent state property tax cap and the state’s newfound stinginess when it comes to education aid, property-taxpayers expect school districts to tighten their belts in the poor economy. Districts generally can’t hold the line on spending in the face of contractually guaranteed increases to salary and benefits for personnel (about 70 percent of any school budget), unfunded education mandates from Washington and Albany and aging buildings that need to be renovated to the highest safety and energy efficiency standards.

Something’s got to give, and it appears nearly every local school district believes there are savings to be had through consolidation.

 

Situation dire in Kingston

Kingston will need bold action to deal with an estimated $12.5-million budget shortfall. It might even close three elementary schools. According to school officials, the gap is the result of rising personnel costs, loss of federal aid, and other changes affecting taxes and Medicare reimbursements.

The board voted last year to close Meagher Elementary, one of its 11 grade schools. Parents of Meagher students are still waiting to find out what that will mean for their children. New superintendent Paul Padalino said other schools might be closed too: Sophie Finn, Anna Devine and Zena are all on the table.

“A lot of this dovetails with our budget, and our budget is going to decide whether we are closing one school or are closing two schools or three schools,” Padalino said.

That’s a lot of schools to close, but with falling enrollment district officials believe it could be done.

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