With the vote to implement one of three proposed elementary grade configurations set for Tuesday, February 28 (7 p.m. — changed from 6 p.m. — at the Middle/High School Auditorium on the Boiceville campus), Onteora Central School District’s board of education once again reviewed the models, while listening to sometimes hotly conflicted viewpoints from personal and professional perspectives.
While more than a dozen of her fellow Phoenicia Elementary School teachers stood in solidarity, Jane Wolfrom said that the faculty of the school supported model three that would keep the school open as a Kindergarten through grade 3 building. “Our school is not what some have referred to as just a building,” she said. “It’s home to the highest number of the district’s students with disabilities, English language learning and a high number of students receiving free and reduced lunch. To say that our population is fragile is an understatement.”
In response to a Shandaken town board resolution that was read two weeks ago calling on board trustees to keep Phoenicia Elementary open, the town of Olive passed its own resolution, read at the school board meeting by town board member Peter Freidel. It called for Olive’s children to remain in one school and that closing Phoenicia was fiscally responsible. Freidel read, “Whereas all the young children in the town are currently educated together at the school, where the town of Olive lacks a town village or center that could duplicate these services; whereas the bookend (Princeton plan) is not likely to fiscally sustain for more than two years…”
Bennett PTA president Sharon Wood said its members collected 200 signatures — “but we stopped prematurely in an effort to minimize hard feelings among the three elementary schools.” At Bennett she said the PTA received responses from more than 40 percent of the district parents, with 90 percent of that group in support of model one, which would have Kindergarten-through-grade six schools at Bennett and Woodstock and would close Phoenicia Elementary School.
JoAnn Margolas, retired librarian from Woodstock Elementary said that the three proposals call for the elimination of a library media specialist and voiced concern vital programs will be eliminated. She said, “My request is, as you make your decision please consider the importance of a library media specialist in the elementary schools, particularly the primary grades.”
Board members reminded people that they have very little spending wiggle room because 75 percent of the $50 million budget goes towards salary, health care and retirement. Another 16 percent is spent on unfunded mandates. Continued rising costs, coupled with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s new two percent tax cap is forcing districts throughout the State to face unprecedented financial hardships. Additionally more than $300,000 is spent on transporting students to private schools and over $900,000 goes toward debt service mostly having to do with Bennett renovations. Enrollment is declining while the per-pupil cost continues to increase. But trustee Laurie Osmond said there is a projected savings difference of only one percent between the three models, or as trustee Michael McKeon explained per household, “that is four cups of coffee and a box of donuts (Dunkin Donut variety).” However Trustee Dan Spencer said, “That one percent is what’s left and could be shared amongst the other schools.”
The board voted unanimously to accept offering retirement incentives as a way to offset the amount of teachers facing lay-offs.
As trustees voiced opinions on the three models, exasperated sighs and heckles could be heard throughout the audience.
• Model one would close Phoenicia Elementary while Woodstock and Bennett Elementary schools would house all the district’s Kindergarten-through-grade six students at a $2.2 million savings. Phoenicia students would be split sending half of students to Bennett with other half to Woodstock. Approximately 30.5 employees face job elimination. Enrollment numbers for the 2012/2013 school year projects to 345 in each building in this model, not including self contained special education classrooms. Projections call for Kindergarten enrollment to rise to 90-94, up from 88. Board members voiced concern with possible overcrowding conditions at Woodstock. Trustee Tony Fletcher said, “If Woodstock is to take in 100 students at this point, it’s got a big kindergarten class coming here next year — that’s what we’ve been told, it’s great news — it’s going to push the population to close to 400 students.” Fletcher added that the RUPCO project, Woodstock Commons, would be bringing in additional low-income families. Out of 53 units, 33 are designated for families. Superintendent Dr. Phyllis Spiegel-McGill, in a separate interview said, “I’m concerned if we shutter a school we’re not allowing room for growth.” If Woodstock Elementary exceeds 350 students she said it was possible, that it could max out classrooms and lose space set aside for the computer lab, art or special education services.
Osmond said she was concerned that this configuration would bring much of the same education, while lagging test standards at the Middle School level could be an indication that students are not being challenged enough. “Maybe part of the problems have been learning just prior to getting into the Middle School — not that we don’t have great teachers, in four-through-six — but maybe it’s the type of learning…I’ve also had friends take their kids out of the district and go to private school right around 5-6 grade and the overwhelming reason is they don’t think their child is being challenged enough academically.”
• Model two would close Phoenicia and cluster grades Kindergarten-through-grade two at Woodstock school with approximately 273 students. This number was modified due to new Kindergarten projections and focused only on K-2. Grades three-through six would house approximately 429 at Bennett and these numbers do not include self-contained special education students. The district would save $2.6 million and lay off approximately 35 employees.
Concerns came from several board members over transporting Kindergarten children from the western end of the district, up by Big Indian, to Woodstock, a trip that totals 35 miles and a 50-minute bus ride. Trustee Rob Kurnit said “there is something visceral in me that when I see a 30 mile trip — it throws me off.”
Trustee Tom Hickey said he received many letters from parents concerned about the length of time spent on the bus and mixed ages. “Busing that deals with the age differences…I think those can be addressed adequately, there won’t be a problem. But I do worry about the youngest kids being on the bus for a real long time.”
If the district adopts a grade-clustering model, grades four (or three)-through six would ride the same bus with High Schoolers. Osmond reminded the board that elementary students who stay after school share the late bus with the Middle/High school students and Woodstock Day school transports Kindergarten-through-twelve with no incident. Spencer said transportation is not as important as the educational and financial implication when comparing the three models. He said, “I’m showing some excitement with this model.” He listed common core planning, curriculum consistency, flexibility to move around, early literacy, and project based learning for upper grades. “It’s the only plan, that keeps the kids together,” allowing friendships at an early age instead of separated by towns. He described the district and the towns that make it up as divisive and competitive. “It creates groups that don’t necessarily blend together.”
• Model three, also known as the bookends plan would have Phoenicia and Woodstock Elementary Schools housing Kindergarten-through-grade three, while Bennett would have the entire population of grades four-through-six. This plan has been modified to grandfather grade three Bennett elementary students so they don’t jump from one school back to Bennett the following year. The district saves $2.1 million and would see approximately 28.5 staff reductions. The lower grades would house approximately 187 students per building and 317 in grades four-through-six. This does not include self-contained special education students. Both cluster models allow opportunity for after school programs such as art and foreign language. Music enrichment would be offered after school. “When I grew up, we’d get off the bus, have a snack and I’d be off with my friends for hours…” said trustee Michael McKeon. “In this district it’s difficult. because of the geography. to get kids together to play.” He said his own children take advantage of the after-school programs, “because there aren’t neighborhoods in some parts of the district…I think that is another advantage that these schools offer.”
Since becoming a trustee, Kurnit has advocated for early literacy programs, noting that this model would make for more focused learning and gives opportunity to bring the Pre-K program to the schools. The Head Start program, currently at Phoenicia Elementary, has an uncertain future if the school closed. Kurnit said, “Part of me is trying to look at this as an opportunity, if everyone could feel positive about it. I don’t see those same opportunities based on space with the other configurations.”++