School officials in the Saugerties Central School District (SCSD) are leaning toward closing Mount Marion Elementary School should they go ahead with plans to reconfigure their schools to address a dwindling student population and a looming $12.5 million budget gap over the next four years.
“The school that’s easiest to redistribute is Mount Marion based on geographics and roads,” said Superintendent Kirk Reinhardt during a meeting of the Board of Education held at Mount Marion Elementary on Tuesday, November 9.
The meeting lasted nearly four hours, with a dozen speakers opposing the district’s plans to shut an elementary school and just two in support.
Kimberly Sloan said she and her children attended Mount Marion Elementary and her grandchildren would too.
“There’s a sense of community that is here,” Sloan said. “I knew where my school was. It was a home away from home. With this new plan to subdivide the grades, you are taking that away from our children…You’re taking away that social bond, a feeling of belonging. They belong here for two years, they’re shipped over here for two years, then here for two years. It just strips our children of feeling safe and secure, and that is what a school is supposed to provide for children.”
Three different models for a three-elementary school future
Last month, a report by the district’s Governance Committee showed that the district has an opportunity to become more efficient while increasing programming, aligning curriculum and enhancing education for all its students. To achieve that, they’ve offered three different models for a three-elementary school future.
Model A would keep the current K-6 configuration intact for three elementary schools. The pros were listed as maintaining neighborhood schools, involve fewer transitions and simplified transportation. The cons are noted as less equity in class size, ESSA funding, curriculum consistency and programming; the possibility of future redistricting; and less cost savings. Model A would potentially save the district around $1.8 million.
Model B would yield two buildings serving K-3 students, and one for students in grades 4-6. Some of the pros were shown as the same as Model A and also included a balance in class sizes in grades 4-6 and a greater preparation for transition to middle school. Cons included less curriculum consistency in primary grades and the possibility of future K-3 redistricting. The potential cost savings of Model B are approximately $2.4 million
Model C would represent the most significant shift in the district, with three elementary academies, one serving K-2, another 3-4 and the last 5-6. The pros are cited as including equitable class size, ESSA funding and programming; increased programming; curriculum consistency; and no future need to redistrict. The cons are a loss of neighborhood schools, multiple transitions and a potentially byzantine transportation scenario with fewer walkers, longer bus rides and an as-yet undetermined cost. Model C could potentially save the district $2.8 million.
An uncertain fiscal situation
The Governance Committee report showed a district-wide student population which peaked at around 3,500 in 2005-06 and has been on a steady decline ever since. The current student population is around 2,300, said Superintendent Kirk Reinhardt, and though there are numerous residential projects either approved by or being reviewed by the Town Planning Board, he said there is no reason to believe they will bring the numbers up to a level that supports four elementary schools in the SCSD.
The report also points toward a perfect storm of an uncertain fiscal situation in New York State, and difficult times ahead for the SCSD if something isn’t done. A report by the district’s Governance Committee shows a projected $1 million budget shortfall in 2022-23, a $1.7 million gap for 2023-24, a $3.7 million chasm for 2024-25 and a $6.1 million gap for 2025-26.
Faith Dixon, a Mount Marion teaching assistant who has been with the district for 26 years, said it felt as though school officials were mostly being driven by the money.
“I feel that you are making a money decision and not an educational decision in the matter of closing a school in our district,” she said.
But Reinhardt said that closing a school isn’t just the fiscally responsible thing to do, it also has the potential to bring equity to the elementary level and beyond.
“We want equity in our buildings,” Reinhardt said. “If you look at 4th grade, we have classes of 12 and classes of 25. It’s just not appropriate. I’ll keep looking at other models, but this is a huge inequity when it comes to education access and opportunity. The student that’s in the 4th grade class of 25 is getting half the education of a student sitting in a class of 12.”
For some in attendance at Mount Marion, the possibility of closing their neighborhood school was difficult to digest. John Dickson said he felt uneasy that school officials who weren’t from Saugerties were involved in deciding the future of the district.
“You’ve used the word ‘community’ many times,” Dickson said. “How easily you throw that word around. You, the Board, have brought administrators in from outside of our community. Don’t patronize us by using that word.”
Kayla O’Donnell asked that school officials consider delaying their plans for at least a year to allow students growing up during COVID-19 pandemic a chance to get used to the idea.
This is a pandemic,” O’Donnell said. “I feel like these kids need stability now more than ever.”
But not all of those who spoke were against the district’s plans.
“I am empathetic to those who feel like something will be lost,” said Sakinah Irizarry. “Too much has been lost over the past two years. We’re all facing a few hard realities. Enrollment is down. Expenses are up…Our financial straits as a district are unsustainable…It takes money to operate schools, and enrollment in our schools has been dropping for the past decade or more. That means less money coming in from the state and less resources for our students.”
Reinhardt said the Mount Marion school building wouldn’t necessarily be abandoned by the district, but could rather be repurposed as a pre-K and special needs hub.
“We believe this campus would be great for that,” Reinhardt said. “It is one floor, it’s got two very distinct wings and it’s also closer to places like Spectrum Services and Ulster BOCES.”