The Onteora Central School District Board of Education is once again looking at changing the way it transports students to-and-from its buildings within its 300 square mile mountainous landscape. The effort is currently in the information gathering stages in which district trustees are reviewing a possible transportation merge affecting grades-four-through-twelve. At its April 3 board meeting at Phoenicia Elementary School, Transportation Director Nicole Sommer presented what could be a cost savings of approximately $380,000 per-year if this were to take place. This would be due to a reduction in the total number of contracted bus runs from 66 to 54.
But in the plan, grades-four-through-six, housed at Bennett Elementary School on the Boiceville campus, merged with the Middle/High School bus runs, would see its average its first pick-up time come at around 6:45 a.m., instead of its current 8 a.m.
Trustees have in the past supported later start times for students, but Sommer said she was not directed by school officials to consider the pickup times, just combine the schools’ bus runs. But when all information was presented, what Sommer gave appeared to be a nearly impossible scenario of merging the whole Campus, while noting safety and lack of space.
“There’s some barriers and concerns as to why it would be a very difficult thing to pull off,” she said. “Without having a common line up, you would have students that would need to get from Bennett down to the High School or from the High School. We can’t put them up at Bennett we just don’t have the room, so doing a common line-up would be key in this routing scheme.”
Sommer listed the problems. “…In order to do that there would be a lot of capital work done as the egress from the schools are not big enough, wide enough; the sidewalks are not wide enough to accommodate the number of students, you would also need a crossing guard for the number of students crossing.”
The parking lot or tennis courts would need to be moved and she also suggested moving the bus garage to a spot adjacent to the tennis courts in a wooded area. All of this would take capital planning and investment. A split line-up of buses would also be difficult. “If you can picture 17 buses at Bennett and 17 at the High School, then buses swapping,” Sommer said, “you would find buses coming out at Bennett, driving into traffic and then trying to get back into the High School, all while the 17 at High School [are] trying to get to Bennett, [and] you would have gridlock.” Trustee Bennet Ratcliff asked for additional studies. “Can we stop traffic, can it be done, can we change the way in which we move cars in and out of the parking lot near the tennis court? I applaud what you’ve done, but I think this is just the beginning of thinking about all of this.” Ratcliff suggested a traffic study in order to look at all options and weigh the safety of it.
Special Ed study
A study of the Onteora’s Special Education Department, presented by John McGuire of Features Education, comparing approximately a dozen other school districts throughout New York State, showed that the district’s department has the lowest student/teacher ratio of 8.7 students per-one teacher. Neighboring New Paltz has 11.2 students per-one teacher.
Onteora also has the most psychology staff available to regular and special education students, or 362 students per-one psychologist, as compared to New Paltz with 1275 students’ per each psychologist. Onteora also has the highest population average of students with disabilities among the districts compared of 20 percent. The state average is 14 percent.
McGuire said RTI (Response To Intervention) in the district needs improving in its early awareness of struggling students in order to curb the high population of special education students.
The graduation rate of students with disabilities is 90 percent. “That’s very good on the face of it, and I don’t want to throw mud on it, those are commendable figures,” McGuire said, “but as I say that out loud we also have 20 percent students identified. Is that because some of our students are not that extreme and could have been addressed through RTI?”
Trustee Laurie Osmond offered an explanation. “I think that part of the 20 percent, too, is our district has the reputation of excellent staff and being very responsive to students.” Other factors include a growing poverty rate, which can bring in students not prepared for school. Additionally, the rate of autism has increased. The State population of 10,617 identified in 2004 increased to 33,890 in 2016. The study made recommendations such as expanding RTI, especially at the early childhood stages, writing more measurable IEP’s (Individual Education Programs), and allowing more integration within the general education population.
Surveillance cameras in elementary schools
Trustees gave a first reading of a policy that will expand the use of surveillance cameras to elementary schools. Cameras are already placed within the Middle/High School. The policy would allow coverage to grades Kindergarten-through-six. It would also allow law enforcement agencies access to the surveillance system in the event of a crisis. Added to the language is, “The district shall enact a Memorandum of Understanding with law enforcement agencies regarding the use of the video surveillance system prior to providing them with access to the system.” According to Superintendent Victoria McLaren, “We want to have a very clear understanding in the Memorandum so that those agencies understand that it is only to happen in times of crisis. We are not authorizing them to randomly dive into our systems and surveil anybody.”