Due to the unavailability of the prospective purchaser on the originally planned day, the closing date for the sale of the Kingston City School District’s Cioni Building has been moved to Thursday, Nov. 15. School officials this week said they were fine with the delay and weren’t concerned that the deal might fall through.
“We haven’t really discussed that, to be honest with you,” said district Superintendent Paul Padalino. “We’re very confident that this is happening.”
Last year, the board agreed to sell Cioni to 61 Crown Street LLC, which is led by New York City-based developer Neil Bender for $4.25 million. Bender said he wanted to turn the coveted Uptown property into a boutique hotel and spa. In January, the board OK’d dropping the price to around $3.47 million following an environmental review which revealed a variety of structural issues.
Many months later, Padalino said that everything is proceeding deliberately, but without cause for concern. Hypothetically, though, with the sale of Cioni and the district’s efforts to convert the former Frank L. Meagher Elementary School into a new central office and pre-kindergarten hub at least theoretically connected, what happens if the deal with Bender falls through?
“If the world turned upside down and this didn’t happen, the construction at Meagher is not technically being funded by the income from selling this property,” Padalino said. “We would go forward with Meagher and we would probably re-list Cioni for sale. It’s not like property values in Uptown Kingston are going down these days.”
School officials hope that they’ll be able to break ground on the Meagher project this summer and move their headquarters there by the beginning of the 2019-20 school year. The terms of the Cioni sale gives them up to two years to fully vacate.
The pre-K program at Meagher is scheduled to open to students in September 2019. The project’s total budget is $4.23 million.
Padalino described work at Meagher as already being ahead of schedule.
“We’ve completed our asbestos abatement, which is obviously a huge undertaking in a building of that age,” he said. “We’ve ripped out the bathrooms and a lot of walls are coming down. A lot of demolition.”
Demolition has also included the removal of the facility’s boiler system, which dated back to 1937.
“We’ve got the new heating system that should be in place by the end of this week,” said Padalino on Tuesday. “That was supposed to happen later, but we figured if we can get it in now we should. It’ll be good for the workers over the winter.”
Padalino said that the pre-K program is slated to open with four classes, with the possibility of further expanding to six in the future. Each pre-K class has a state-mandated maximum capacity of 19 students, with one teacher and a teaching assistant in each.
Some aspects of the district’s forthcoming pre-K program are already in place, while others are still unclear.
“As far as the program, the curriculum, we’re ready to go,” Padalino said. “We’re planning to run at least two dual-language classes where they teach one day in English and one day in Spanish. We’re actively recruiting teachers who are certified in those areas. And we’re recruiting teaching assistants who might have multiple languages. And obviously we’ll follow state guidelines for pre-K.”
But while the search is on for educators to work in the new pre-K classrooms, how to find the students is still being discussed.
“It’s so up in the air,” Padalino said. “It’s a really interesting exercise we’re doing here because we’re trying to figure out the right time and the right way to recruit students. We want to focus our recruitment on our students who are English as a second language (ESL) and on our students in that (Meagher) neighborhood who are on free and reduced lunch. Those students tend to be the students who aren’t going to the community programs. My assistant superintendent for elementary education (Stacia Felicello) has been at my door every day asking, ‘When are we starting?’ She’s anxious to get this going.”
While school officials are keen on the dual-language aspect of pre-K, Padalino said it also means looking ahead at how best to educate those students moving forward.
“We’ll have four-year olds coming into kindergarten out of a dual-language program, but we don’t have a kindergarten dual-language program yet,” Padalino said. “We’re trying to think three, four years out how we can do this.”
There’s also the matter of a potential reversal in a decade-long trend: After seeing its student population fall from over 10,000 to below 7,000 over a 10-year period, early reports from school officials indicate that the pendulum could be swinging upward again.
“Our buildings are filling up,” said Padalino. “We’re glad. We’re not at 100 percent capacity or anything like that anywhere, but we’re seeing increased enrollment, and a lot of it is spurred on by English language learners. We’re doing a lot of looking at what we need to do to expand this program and keep our buildings at 85-90 percent capacity, and keep our K-1-2 [class sizes] at 22 or fewer. It’s a Rubik’s Cube.”
Padalino said he understood that some community members who saw the district close four of its 11 elementary schools within the past decade might be concerned that they’ll suddenly find themselves needing another school building again, but he said any issue of overcrowding moving forward would likely be resolved by what he admits isn’t always a popular option.
“One of our issues is our attendance zones,” he said. “When you look and see that JFK is filling up like crazy and we’re putting art teachers and music teachers on a cart, and you look across town and there are schools with two or three empty classrooms. Some of it is looking at what our borders are, and then asking if we need to make any changes.”