West Hurley elementary school sits empty, tucked away in a quiet residential neighborhood. Signs of neglect and misuse have lifted their ugly heads since it was closed in 2004, with evidence of graffiti, chipped paint, broken windows, pot holes and the slowly decaying remains of a playground. The nature trail next to the school and a safely fenced in area that was once for children to play and explore is now a haven for dogs and their walkers. Canines are seen scampering around with their owners, happily enjoying the woods and lawns. The trail indicates signs of used small fire rings from campers or maybe people looking to party in a secluded area. The outdoor classroom that was used by children to learn about the environment has deteriorated, its benches beginning to rot, overgrown with weeds.
West Hurley’s Levins building, the newer of the two buildings that made up the campus, closed eight years ago and as school board trustees have come and gone, there has always been the promise by the Onteora Central School District to take care of the beloved school, to find a purpose for it. But nothing has ever come to fruition, and the building falls deeper in decay. At first no one wanted to go through a voter approval process that is necessary to put it on the real estate market, and now it seems there is very little interest due to the weak economy. There were discussions to open it as enrollment declined, as the Levins building was smaller but newer than Woodstock Elementary, with larger fields to play. The original Ryan school had historical significance dating back to 1935 and there were talks about perhaps achieving landmark status for it, or turning it over to a historical society. There has been talk of the district moving its administrative offices there as a way to free up space for an expanded middle school on the central campus in Boiceville.
Around 2006, when KSQ architects presented possibilities for the district following nearly a year of studies and community meetings, the company favored a proposal that the three current elementary schools would exist. But the school board of the time had a two elementary school configuration in mind, and thus the struggle began. The composition of the trustees on the school board changed through resignations and elections to one that favored keeping three schools open. As time went on, West Hurley’s viable options shrank as costs for implementation rose.
Current Trustee Dan Spencer has repeatedly called for the school board to not only find a short-term solution to stop escalating costs, but also come up with a long-term plan, something that was apparently lacking in the past. Trustee Tony Fletcher said at a past board of education meeting, “What are we doing with West Hurley? I don’t know because we’re stuck with it.” There is a cost to maintain its emptiness, at a total of $67,000 per year for minimal heating and maintenance. Some zoning restrictions would apply if voters chose to put it on the market, narrowing the options for buyers. The parcel was appraised in 2008 between a value of $750,000 and $850,000.
Princeton plan was used before closing
As the current discussion about reconfiguring the Onteora district nears its climax, many people are not aware that the Princeton plan currently being proposed in two of the three models is not a stranger to the district.
In its first iteration, West Hurley elementary was split; the Ryan building held Kindergarten-through-two, and Levins housed grades four-through-six. But the Ryan building closed in 2002 due to mold and drainage problems, sending all the children to the Levins building. The district then, similar to current trends, was facing 12-15 percent increase in health benefits, along with a rise in retirement funds and debt payment on a bond that refurbished Bennett Elementary. District officials were predicting a double-digit budget increase, giving way to double-digit tax levy increase.
In 2003 West Hurley and Woodstock implemented the Princeton plan as a compromise to save the West Hurley School. Officials were able to keep the budget increase to five percent. The West Hurley Levins building became a Kindergarten-through-grade two and Woodstock became a grade three-through-six school. The district saved approximately $800,000 and voters approved the budget.
Initially, a Princeton plan was proposed where West Hurley and Phoenicia would house the younger grades and Bennett/Woodstock would house the older grades at a savings of over a $1 million. But that plan was modified to the eastern end of the district only.
Some staff and parents with children say the Princeton plan worked well. Woodstock Principal Bobbi Schnell was principal of West Hurley at the time and lauded the K-2 model. “We really were an early literacy center, a true community,” said Schnell. “There was conversation around the kids, what kind of innovative programming we could come up with…unfortunately we only did it for the one year.” Schnell said everyone was looking forward to expanding programs that would focus on younger developmental age group and team teaching. “We were able to do something we called TLC which was Thursday Learning Circles and every Thursday afternoon the teachers of K-2 would choose something they loved to do whether it be decoupage, crocheting or strategy games. They would do anything that they loved and children would choose which class they would want to take. All of the children and teachers in all of the classes got to know each other so it was like a family.”
The following year, West Hurley elementary closed at an additional savings of $781,000, and a six percent budget increase was proposed. The budget was defeated.
Current district clerk Fern Amster was PTA president of Woodstock during that time and Valerie Hill was PTA president of West Hurley. Both agreed the Princeton plan was a good match. The two PTA’s shared responsibilities with meetings taking place in both schools and events held for all age groups.
But, in an email, Hill said she believed that when talks turned once again to budget cuts, all was just window dressing for what was to come. She wrote, “I remember feeling like the decisions were made and the meetings were just a formality.” As it looked more likely West Hurley would close, the two PTA’s needed to plan a merge of resources and keep peace between the parents, which was increasingly difficult. Amster said, “We didn’t mind the Princeton plan. It was the merging of the two schools — it was hard to get the parents together.” She described the environment as hostile — the district was still reeling over the Mascot issue (highly emotional protests of the district’s Indian logo in the late 1990s), followed by a proposal to close West Hurley. The following year would bring about the explosive Large Parcel debate, a reform of the property tax system that placed heavy increases on Olive and Hurley residents, in what School Board President of the time Marino D’Orazio would title a “perfect storm.” Police were present during meetings and Amster can’t remember which controversy brought about fights and car tires being slashed, as she said that the tumultuous time seems to mesh together.
History of the merge
When the proposal moved forward to close West Hurley Elementary, a very distinct division began to form. Some parents were wary of the Woodstock area, claiming that pedophiles and drug dealers commonly walked and hitchhiked along route 375. Attacks were focused on the Bennett elementary voter approved bond to renovate the school and add 12,000 additional square feet. Parents in West Hurley didn’t want to lose their community school and felt cheated by lack of district support and planning. Others threatened to move out of the district or remove their children, with a small minority keeping that promise. Special education was attacked along with salaries and administration. Woodstock was about to get an unprecedented amount of students once West Hurley closed, over 400, a population the district had never experienced. A group titled, “Saving Excellence in Education,” noted that in 1993 Woodstock Elementary housed a maximum population of 322 and noting that school records couldn’t be found for a higher population. Woodstock Elementary in total had three storage supply rooms; one was used as a resource and special education classroom; one was used to give music lessons. Art classes were taught on the stage. The special education classroom for children with more severe disabilities was moved to Bennett Elementary.
“When we first came over here, it was a bit crowded, we had over 400 children and it was tight that first year,” Schnell said. “But as the population dwindled as it has been over the years, we’ve had fewer kids so the population just kind of evened out on its own.”
Woodstock/West Hurley combined currently holds 255 students.
Monica Kim was the PTA president after the two schools merged. At a recent board meeting she said kids adapted well to the changes. Socially, most agreed it worked out well, with staff doing its part to make children feel welcome.
Schnell has no opinion on which model the board should choose, whether it includes closing Phoenicia and having two kindergarten-through-six programs or implementing a Princeton Plan. “I do wish the board would just make a decision and I hope they make it soon so we can move forward with our plans,” said Schnell. “Wherever we end up we have a lot of planning to do.”++