Trustees: Finances of building closure too significant to ignore

Trustee Robin Jacobowitz. (Photo by Phyllis McCabe)

It comes down to money. While the Kingston City School District’s upcoming comprehensive elementary school redistricting project — whatever shape it eventually takes when voted on later this month — will offer students new educational opportunities, fiscal concerns are what’s lending it urgency.

In Kingston, as in school districts across the state and the country, when one talks about it coming down to money, it’s really about a lack of money, and/or a need to spend money more efficiently. In Kingston, in the past year it’s been about dwindling state aid, a declining student population and its inherent reduction in local taxpayers to help keep a district designed for 10,000 kids running when it’s only serving 7,000. While Superintendent Paul Padalino’s redistricting proposal highlights new educational opportunities for students in elementary and middle schools, and brings them a step closer to smaller learning communities in the high school, it might not be happening so soon if not for a need to rein in spending.

At the beginning of the 2011-12 school year, the Kingston City School Districthad 11 elementary schools, though one — Frank L. Meagher — would close its doors by the end of June. Three more elementary schools have been recommended for closure at the end of the 2012-13 school year, with students from Anna Devine, Sophie Finn and Zena all being absorbed by other schools if the plan goes ahead as proposed. Those closures alone, Padalino has said, will result in a savings of $4.76 million a year, a substantial amount of money for a district which had to overcome a $12 million budget gap earlier this year. The savings would come from staff reductions, reconfiguring bus routes, and not having to spend the money to keep three buildings open during the school year. Those buildings, like Meagher and the district’s headquarters in the Cioni Building on Crown Street, will all be put on the market in the hopes of bringing in more money.

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Padalino’s plan will go before the Board of Education on Thursday, Aug. 30, for a vote. That still leaves two weeks for questions to be answered, possible adjustments to be made and members of the community to have their say. While some trustees have said that officially putting the plan into action before students return to school next month will allow for many of the issues to be worked out before the changes are undertaken in 2013-14, there are others who are hoping to see more of the details worked out prior to the vote.

School officials have shown numerous ways in which the plan — which also includes moving the fifth grade from elementary school into the middle schools — could offer new learning opportunities, including intensified seminar-style courses in everything from foreign languages to art. Consolidating resources, Padalino said, would allow for students in middle school to have regular access to guidance where they might not have before. Trustee Robin Jacobowitz said the possibilities presented by Padalino have the potential to strike a balance between educational and fiscal sense.

“Dr. Padalino has also offered several options for new schedules at the elementary and middle schools, which will add dedicated time for enrichment and re-teaching for students,” Jacobowitz said. “These are also made possible through consolidation. I think that there is much potential in these schedules, for enrichment and remediation, as well as new opportunities for students.”

Up to the board

The cost of many of the proposed changes, as well as the percentage of anticipated savings which might go back into improving program for students in all grades, has yet to be revealed. There is also the matter of how best to reduce the strain on local taxpayers. Some of those decisions, said Trustee Jim Shaughnessy, lie with the Board of Education.

“I think some of the savings will be used for educational programs,” Shaughnessy said. “Dr. Padalino has talked about adding literacy coaches in our elementary schools and instructional coaches in our secondary schools. The Board of Education will have to decide what part of the savings will directly impact taxpayers. The tax cap legislation complicates this decision, because a reduction in the tax levy in one year lowers the allowed tax levy in following years. I expect that some of the savings may be used to limit future tax levy increases.”

Trustee Maureen Bowers said she would like to see as much of the savings returned to the classroom as possible, especially with the tax cap restricting how much school districts can seek from local property owners.

“Mind there may be some costs associated with the proposed re-configuration, [for example] transportation, where savings could be used to offset,” she said. “However, the majority of any savings could be used to improve and expand our educational programs. So many concerns have come from the community in the public forums, and parent group meetings, but certainly one of them is to build on what we have, and offer more enrichment and opportunity.”

Jacobowitz said that with some of the educational elements of Padalino’s plan unlikely to cost extra money because of consolidation, reinvesting some of the savings in things like extra buses to allow fifth- and sixth-graders to maintain as much separation from older middle school students are realistic possibilities.

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