The Onteora school district continues to wrestle with its options for district reconfiguration. Parents and teachers are urging the trustees to consider impacts to the communities.
Dr. Bill Richardson, the board’s consultant, has detailed the options and provided rough estimates of costs associated with adapting the remaining buildings after one or more schools close. The district has lost half its student population in the last decade, and enrollment continues to decline. District officials say making the continued operation and maintenance of all buildings is unsustainable.
Three scenarios are being considered: One is to close Bennett school and make Woodstock and Phoenicia k-5 schools. Another is to close Woodstock or Phoenicia, leaving two k-5 schools, or to close both. The third option is to make Boiceville a central campus, with Bennett as a k-5 school and the middle/high school containing the rest of the district student population.
Currently, Woodstock and Phoenicia serve grades k-3, and Bennett is for grades 4-6. The board recently made the decision to move the sixth grade to the middle/high school beginning in 2024.
“It is it is difficult, I realize, to do this,” Richardson told the board during a guided discussion at its April 18 meeting. “I have been part of building a lot of new schools in my career. I’ve been unfortunately part of closing a lot of them too, especially after 2008,”
No decision was made that evening.
“I was a superintendent in Arizona, where we were growing really, really fast. And then we shrunk really, really quick,” he said. “We had to close a lot of the brand-new schools we just built, which was horrific.”
New York State is now struggling with shrinking enrollment. “You are not alone in this in this journey. I’ve lost track of the number of districts I’ve either talked to or I’ve worked with on this very topic, but it’s important, and I commend you for actually taking it on before it’s so far down the road that you don’t have really any kids in school.”
Greene County is projected to lose 25 percent of its students from 2000 to 2030. “I’m working with a district that had 2600 students nine years ago. They will go under 1000 this year,” Richardson said.
Though some upstate districts have seen increases linked to an influx of Covid migration from New York City, the opposite is also true as people start to move back into New York City.
All the scenarios have costs
Creating a central campus by closing the Woodstock and Phoenicia elementary schools and making Bennett k-5 would create a central campus, with grades 6-8 and 9-12 at the adjacent middle/high school.
Ten additional classrooms would be needed at Bennett, which would then have an enrollment of 426 students. The building theoretically probably could hold that.
“You don’t have any fire-code issues or anything like that. But based on your current programming, based on your current needs of students, you would have to do some upgrades,” Richardson said. “If you build an outlying building with the whole ten classrooms, you’re talking at least 10,000 square feet. If not two stories, you’re in the neighborhood of five to seven million for that,” he said.
If only Woodstock closed, the district would have to add up to seven rooms to Phoenicia and the enrollment there would be 213. The district would then have two k-5 schools.
If only Phoenicia were closed, Woodstock would not need additional rooms to accommodate the students. “And in return, you would have 213 students also in Bennett, which is actually less students than you currently have right now,” Richardson said.
With school construction costs of $300 to $400 per square foot, and factors like asbestos and PCB abatement when those substances are uncovered, the work could cost somewhere between $4 million to $17 million.
“You’re putting seven rooms in, but you’re touching the other 14 ventilation systems. You’re touching their doors, they’re touching the tile in the classrooms. You’re touching all of that,” Richardson said.
Whatever reconfiguration is chosen has the potential to save the district $400,000 to $500,000 annually, offsetting capital costs, he added.
A significant savings will come from lower transportation costs. Buses now travel a combined 4366 miles per day, trustee Cindy Bishop noted.
“Our transportation director has projected that whichever scenario is chosen, we will be able to reduce up to ten bus runs,” schools superintendent Victoria McLaren said.
Think of the children
“At the dinner table last night, I asked my daughter what she would say if an alien spaceship just happened to land at Phoenicia Elementary and wanted to destroy it. And she told me that they can’t because it’s the best school ever,” said an emotional parent and former educator Mariel Melnick. “Phoenicia is her third school. And when she entered it, she already believed that she was an innately bad kid. She was running away at school. She would refuse to write even her own name. As a mother, heartbreak became a daily exercise.
“Most days she left the house in tears, and returned to me wailing while a staff member barraged me with a list of her new offenses. I was sure my daughter would never like school, and I worried about so much more. I was certain we were doomed because the schools that left my daughter and myself in shambles are good schools. I can’t begin to describe the relief. My family feels now what a testament to the unique power of Phoenicia Elementary, my daughter awakens happy to get ready. She reads and writes enthusiastically, and she bounces out of school with a smile on her face.”
Speech pathologist Ariel McGrath spoke to the value of the existing k-3 schools.
“We have two incredible community schools at the k-3 level, which are the anchors of our district, both of which have been recognized on local and state levels for superior education. As someone who’s worked in both short schools, I can assure you that both schools are filled with hardworking compassionate staff who care deeply for their students and for one another,” she said. “Whatever decision you choose to make, please ask yourselves, is it equitable, because as I’m sure you would agree, every student matters regardless of their zip code, or socioeconomic status.”
Phoenicia teacher Hilary Partridge said the decision was more than a matter of finances. “I have been through district reconfiguration and school closing before and I know how divisive it can be. It is such an emotional topic that is being done for financial reasons. It is hard to equate children, communities and experiences with dollar signs,” she told the school board. “We all understand that there has been declining enrollment for many, many years, and that something must be done.
“But what? The district spent many thousands of dollars to hire experts, compile data, hold forums, do surveys, and yet the decision is still left to you. Whatever you choose will be criticized by some and applauded by others. I truly hope that in the end we can all come together as a district and Onteora community and move forward.”