With enrollment declining, Onteora considers reshuffling grades

The Onteora Central School District has begun again to tackle the ever thorny possibilities of grade configuration in its four operating buildings, to deal once more with declining enrollment and the always present need to save money. 

At their January 21 meeting, school board members heard from consultant Dr. Kevin Baughman of five potential scenarios to deal with concerns.

The first two alternative models would make Phoenicia and Woodstock Elementary, currently housing grades K-3, into either K-4 or K-5 schools, with grades five, or grades five and six students moving into in the Middle School, which occupies the same building as the High School. This would effectively eliminate the need for Bennett, which currently houses grades 4-6. Closing Bennett and reassigning its students to one of the two other schools could potentially save the district $500,000 annually.

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The next two alternative models looked at closing both Phoenicia and Woodstock Elementary schools and reassigning its students to Bennett. In this scenario, either Bennett’s fifth-grade students, or both its fifth and sixth graders, would be reassigned to Onteora Middle School. These two models could potentially save the district half almost a million dollars annually.

The fifth model would be to close either Phoenicia or Woodstock Elementary and reassign the students to Bennett and the one left open, in a K-5 configuration. Bennett’s current sixth-grade students would be reassigned to Middle School. This scenario would see annual savings of approximately $400,000.

The Onteora district encompasses approximately 300 square miles, serving 45,000 residents. Currently, three elementary schools and one 7-12 grade middle/high school complex educate some 1,255 students: 625 in the Middle/High School, 300 in Bennett Elementary, serving grades 4-6; 130 in Phoenicia Elementary, and 190 in Woodstock Elementary, both serving grades K-3.

“You could look at five or 15 scenarios, but no one is like you,” said Baughman, who’s credentials show over 25 years of school leadership, including a decade as Superintendent of the Niskayuna Central School District. “You’ve got poverty, and you’ve got wealth. You’re really large. You are truly unique.” The Onteora district is the 16th largest in the state. 

None of the alternative scenarios would see the high school grade configuration change, due to concerns about younger and older students interacting in common areas such as hallways, bathrooms, and offices.

Difficult transitions

Baughman was hired to conduct a study on future building utilization and grade configuration to help identify alternatives to the current scenario and evaluate the pros and cons of each. He delivered a 70-page study analyzing student achievement and enrollment, reporting on findings from interviews with school board and administration and revealing the results of a district survey. As part of his assignment, Baughman also met with teachers, students, parents and community members, finding that their biggest concerns were about separating the youngest from the oldest children, the potential length of the bus ride, the possibility for overcrowding, the impact of closing schools on communities, and the need for cost reduction.

The district has studied various grade level reconfigurations since the early 2000s, with West Hurley Elementary school closing in 2004 as a result, and the current configuration adopted in 2012-13. Since then, the district has lost another 262 students. Baughman’s report projected that enrollment would decline another 195 students over the next ten years, totaling 38% over 20 years, and leaving approximately 35 classrooms — or the equivalent of two schools — empty.

Baughman’s research found that when children make transitions to new schools, their academic achievement can be adversely affected for one to three years, with some children never fully adjusting. The current Onteora configuration requires three such transitions. Since Onteora Middle and High School are housed in the same complex, Kevin Salem, one member of the Board of Education, questioned whether student transitions within the same building are just as significant on student achievement as transitions between buildings. Baughman did not know, but re-emphasized that was the single finding in his study that showed a definite impact on student achievement.” Salem responded, “Well, it’s fascinating and will spur more study and discussion.”

Including the sixth grade level in middle school, Baughman said, is a trend that has been found to offer greater flexibility in student extracurricular activity scheduling, as well as adding a year’s time to meet State educational requirements for middle school. However, he said, merely moving the sixth-grade level from Bennett to Middle school is short-sighted. “It’s just shifting students, not looking at the long term.” 

No endorsement

After taking questions from the Board, the meeting then segued into a ‘Public Be Heard’ segment, with half a dozen audience participants raising questions on the possibility of recent immunization laws impacting enrollment and whether any discussions with local private schools and/or implications for preschools had been considered. 

Maxanne Resnick, a school board member from 2006-2009, when the district had also looked at the reconfiguration question, said, “I thought Dr. Baughman was excellent. It’s such a complicated question, and he did an excellent job.” 

Resnick emphasized that teacher quality is the main factor that accounts for student success. She also pointed out that “communities in the district that are 50-60% second home-owned, and that clearly affects enrollment.” Noting that school districts and health facilities are the biggest area employers, she recommended that the Board be in touch with Ulster County Planning to talk about the actual trends and demographics, including employment trends that may impact future enrollment.

Baughman pointed out that he does not endorse any scenario over another, saying, “My job was to put this information out, to objectively analyze it, to help you have objective data to make decisions if you choose to move forward.” He emphasized that any future decisions need to focus on the long-term, be flexible, and, most importantly, be adaptable to changing enrollment. 

He added that he hoped that any potential cost savings would be used to redirect money that is currently being spent in redundant or not efficient ways. “If the costs can be redirected to enhance programming, you can take what is already a very good district with a good reputation and truly make it an exemplary district that would make people want to come here not only for the mountains and the river and the beauty but for the schools.” ++

Dr. Baughman’s study can be downloaded from the Onteora Central School District’s website at https://go.boarddocs.com/ny/onteora/Board.nsf/Public, then click on ‘meetings’ in the upper right corner, then on January 21, 2020, then ‘view the agenda,’ then scroll down to item 8 and find the final report.

There are 2 comments

  1. Justin Fot

    Nice piece, Lissa. But why not address the reasons why the decline in enrollment? Are more people sending their kids to private schools, because they can afford it? Or are New York State taxes driving people with children, out? Just curious.

    -Justin

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