The Saugerties Central School District’s (SCSD) Board of Education this week voted 8-1 to close Mt. Marion Elementary School at the end of the 2021-22 school year and absorb its students into the three remaining elementary schools in the district. The Mt. Marion building will be turned into a universal pre-K hub and district offices.
Trustee Raymond Maclary cast the sole vote against the resolution during the School Board meeting held at Charles M. Riccardi Elementary on Tuesday, January 11. As has been the case for the past several months, the majority of speakers during the public session at the beginning of the meeting spoke out against a closure of any kind, particularly Mt. Marion. Maclary said he voted against the plan to let the public know their voices had been heard.
“I support the decision as a board member, but my vote’s going to be no because I want the people of the community to know that this board has heard everything that you’ve said,” he said, adding that he understood that the decision coming in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly difficult for many members of the Mt. Marion community.
“The timing is terrible,” Maclary said. “There’s a lot of pain in this decision.”
School officials have said that the move was an inevitability, in part because of finances. An October report by the district’s Governance Committee shows a projected $1 million budget shortfall for the SCSD in 2022-23, a $1.7 million gap for 2023-24, a $3.7 million chasm for 2024-25 and a $6.1 million shortfall for 2025-26.
Trustee Elena Maskell, who voted for the resolution but said she wouldn’t have chosen Mt. Marion.
“The reality is that we can’t sustain four elementary schools,” Maskell said.
The Governance study also charted a district-wide student population, which peaked at around 3,500 in 2005-06, that has been on a steady decline ever since. The current student population is around 2,400, and though there are numerous residential projects either approved by or being reviewed by the Town Planning Board, the district is still projecting a modest annual decrease over the next decade, likely dropping to around 2,100 by the 2029-30 school year.
That report also said 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 offered three different models for a three-elementary school future, and on Tuesday, the School Board approved Model A.
Model A will 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 could potentially save the district around $1.8 million a year. That savings would be realized in part through a reduction in staff, including 13.2 teachers, 8.5 teaching assistants, 2.5 monitors, two custodial workers, one custodian, one principal, one secretary and one food service worker.
Model B would have yielded two buildings serving K-3 students and one serving 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 were approximately $2.2 million per year, realized with a reduction of 15.1 teachers, 8.5 teaching assistants, 2.5 monitors, two custodial workers, one custodian, one principal, one secretary, one food service worker and a part-time data entry clerk.
Model C would have represented 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 were cited as equitable class size, ESSA funding and programming; increased programming; curriculum consistency; and no future need to redistrict. The cons were 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 would have required the closure of Morse Elementary rather than Mt. Marion. Cahill would have become the K-2 school, Mt. Marion 3-4 and Riccardi 5-6.
On Tuesday, Superintendent Kirk Reinhardt said the district’s decision was informed by community feedback, which also included pleas for greater academic opportunities for all students.
“Throughout the last seven or eight months I was able to learn a lot about the community, a lot about the district and a lot about what they wanted for their students and the opportunities they wanted us to be able to afford,” Reinhardt said.
SCSD Board of Education Vice-President James Mooney dismissed the notion that the district was simply reacting to a rocky fiscal road ahead.
“People tried their best to keep things open and keep things the way they were, but unfortunately it’s reached a point where it can’t,” Mooney said. “This is not a knee-jerk reaction. This is not something that just came across the desk.”
Fellow trustee Krista Barringer agreed.
“When I hear people say, ‘This is not the right time,’ you’re absolutely right, because probably the best time was ten years ago,” she said.
Barringer said she felt what made Mt. Marion so special for so long doesn’t have to go away because the building is being repurposed.
“We are not closing Mt. Marion,” she said. “We are taking a community that has been an innovative, energetic community…and we are making that a district-wide opportunity. This is a district-wide decision. It will have a district-wide impact.”
School officials will seek to involve the community in the transition process, including how best to redraw attendance zones as equitably as possible.
“We want to make sure that when we look at those final lines that we’re doing as much as possible to balance out our class sizes,” Reinhardt said. “I’m confident that it’s going to be a challenge, but I’m confident it’s going to happen.”