The Onteora School Board voted 6-1 to close Phoenicia Elementary School on Tuesday evening, May 2, in all likelihood likely sealing the same fate for the Woodstock Elementary School. The board approved a plan for a central campus in Boiceville housing all students in grades k-12.
The vote was added to the agenda the afternoon of May 2, just hours before the scheduled school board meeting. It came under sharp criticism for lack of transparency
Phoenicia will close at the end of the 2023-24 school year. The Woodstock and Bennett schools will house grades k-5 beginning with the 2024-25 school year. In the current configuration, Woodstock and Phoenicia contain grades k-3, Bennett grades 4-6 and the middle/high school grades 7-12. The board recently approved the first step of the reconfiguration by moving the sixth grade to the middle school beginning with the 2024-25 school year.
The resolution passed by the board May 2 commits the district to working toward a unified central campus by 2028. While the measure doesn’t reference other closures directly, such a transition eliminates the need for Woodstock Elementary School.
Faced with steadily declining enrollment and a loss of 1000 students, or more than half its total over the last decade, district officials have said that maintaining all schools was not sustainable. A teacher shortage doesn’t make it any easier.
Closing Phoenicia “would allow for improved instructional experiences for students, fewer transitions between school buildings, more efficient transportation, more effective use of faculty and staff, and greater alignment of resources and practices,” the May 2 resolution stated.
The vote was the culmination of many meetings, beginning with a 2019 study conducted by Dr. Kevin Baughman that laid out six options. One would have close Bennett and made Phoenicia and Woodstock K-5. A second would have closed Bennett and made Phoenicia and Woodstock k-4, and the middle school 5-8. A third would have closed Phoenicia and Woodstock and made Bennett k-5. The fourth was to close Phoenicia and Woodstock to make Bennett k-4, and to make the middle school 5-8, The fifth was to close either Phoenicia or Woodstock. The sixth option was to do nothing
The lone dissenter
The board’s lone dissenting opinion came from trustee Sarah Hemingway Lynch, who conceded that the ad-hoc committee on restructuring had “made a really compelling case” for a central campus based on economic impact, fewer transitions between buildings, and more effective use of faculty and staff, but complained there had been no firm cost estimates of the changes.
Further, she called the need to reconfigure Woodstock Elementary antithetical to the greater academic achievement goal and negating the positive impact for the current cohort of k-3.
“We break apart teacher cohorts in fourth and fifth grade that we know are working,” Lynch said “We prolong the separation with two schools instead of bringing them together, strengthening the culture of one Onteora. Seeing that building there evokes so much emotion and a sense of learning and a sense of community. To some little kids, we’re talking about kids that are five, six, seven years old, it’s a place that fed them, loved them and kept them safe.”
The case for the closings
Superintendent Victoria McLaren said the district would save $370,000 to $750,000 annually in facilities costs and $880,000 per year in transportation expenses under the new configuration. Those rough estimates may change when the transportation contract is up for renewal next year.
Still to be determined are cost estimates for reconfiguring the remaining buildings.
Board vice-president Cindy Bishop said the decision was not purely financial. She said the plan the bard advocated would enhance teacher abilities to collaborate across grade levels, now limited by buildings separated by 15 miles. A national teacher shortage was creating difficulties in a district where 30 percent of the teachers will reach retirement age by 2028.
The reconfiguration plan, elaborated Bishop, would address “a shared standing issue in our elementary schools where teachers and related service providers who are assigned to k-6 students may travel during the day between buildings, losing hours of instructional time each week.” Currently eleven teaching staff travel between buildings.
Out of 127 students attending Phoenicia, only 55 live in the Town of Shandaken, Bishop said, while 72 live in Bearsville, Boiceville, Glenford, Hurley, Olivebridge, Shokan, Stone Ridge, West Hurley, West Shokan and Willow. Many students from the parts of Woodstock go to Phoenicia in order to more evenly distribute the population.
“Those 72 students are bused past Bennett each day to maintain acceptable enrollment at Phoenicia,” she said. “Our buses currently travel in excess of 5000 miles daily, transporting our students to their schools. Our elementary buildings are significantly underutilized, however. [They] require full maintenance and incur operational expenses as though they were fully utilized, which negatively impacts our environment, wastes resources, and burdens our taxpayers.”
By the numbers
Trustee David Wallis cited census data. In 2011, there were 490 students in the district aged five or under. In 2021, there were 427. “That’s a reduction of about twelve percent. This is U.S. Census data. This is good, solid data,” he said.
He was heckled by the crowd, many of whom chanted, “No, that’s not accurate,” as he tried to conclude.
“I think that there’s been a lot of misconceptions about the significant number of mystery children who are suddenly going to come to our schools and flood them. That’s not true. And it needs to be said that it’s not true,” he said. Wallis equated the situation to an old couple whose children have moved out of the house and have to deal with downsizing.
“And you’re running for re-election,” shouted someone in the crowd.
“I really don’t care. See, I care more about the kids than I do my own election,” Wallis responded. “It’s uncomfortable, and it’s hard, and we have to sometimes make a move, and that’s where we’re at. That’s the reality of the situation, folks. And that’s hard to hear, and it’s a challenge.”
Don’t ram this through
Board president Emily Sherry asked the board whether it wanted to delay the vote, given calls from the community not to rush. Her motion failed.
After the meeting, Sherry explained that the board had been prepared to vote on the plan at the previous meeting, but the resolution did not make it onto the agenda because some trustees had unresolved questions. It was placed on the May 2 agenda immediately after being approved by the district’s attorneys, she explained.
Many in the audience questioned why it couldn’t wait until the next meeting.
More than 30 people spoke, all but three against the plan.
Former school board president and 14-year board member Laurie Osmond said that the board president and vice president meet with the superintendent the week before the monthly meeting to set the agenda.
“The agenda is supposed to come out on Friday. You don’t slip things in at noon the day of the meeting,” she said. “I have said before that this was being timed to happen before the election so there was no chance of a new trustee getting a vote. You denied that.” Osmond said.
“I have said before that there was an agenda and that numerous former school board members have heard the superintendent say over the years that she wanted a central campus, and I was told there was no agenda,” Osmond said. “The newspapers were told there was no agenda. That was a lie.”
Osmond told the board they had been elected to represent their constituents, not to do the bidding of the superintendent. “You’re not being honest. You’re not being transparent, and no one is going to forget this.”
A matter of trust
Parent Jeff Bailey said the board had lost the public’s trust, especially with the last-minute notice. “As the knowledge of this meeting and this vote came at 3:30 during pickup time at school, as it rippled through the school — the amount of anxiety, and scariness and unknowingness — we all rallied together,” Bailey said. “Look how many people came on this amount of notice just to show up and just say, wait, wait, how can we trust this data.“It is the most unscrupulous and shameful thing to put on the agenda this morning to minimize the effect of public discourse. It’s not the right way, and you don’t want to start this choice that way.”
Parent Caroline Jerome, a Woodstock Library trustee, said she knew what it was like to lose and rebuild the trust of the public, having dealt with the long, contentious process of moving into a new facility. “I know there have been whispers about this for as long as I’ve been here,” she said. “However, this seems very rushed to me. And I think that it’s going to really affect this very, very precious thing that there’s such a shortage of in our society in general, which is trust.”
She asked for a reconsideration of the vote that evening, “and give us a chance to become more involved in knowing what you know, because you know what we know but we don’t know what you know.”
The short notice of the vote left many like Jane Brooks disturbed. “The thing is that I have had so little time to process this that I don’t even know the exact timing because you threw this vote on the agenda three hours ago,” she said. “We are a small business entrepreneurs in this town, also thinking about making a major investment in this town, and I’m reconsidering that right now.”
Brooks was not thrilled with the idea of her daughter riding the bus for three extra hours per week if Woodstock Elementary eventually closes. “I moved upstate to give her a safe, healthy environment, a vibrant community,” she explained “And I hear I want to be part of that. But I can’t be if these decisions are made behind closed doors without the feedback in a timely manner of the community in which is being impacted.”
Longtime Phoenicia teacher Sharon McInerney asked the trustees to think about educational equality before casting their vote.
“Woodstock has always been seen sort of as an upper-class, well-educated, high socioeconomic area and community, whereas Phoenicia is always known as a more rural, backwoods, impoverished, poor community,” she said. “And that’s why I think many parents from Phoenicia don’t even know about this, and what’s going on because they’re too busy working second- and third-shift jobs to be able to make ends meet. So to close a school like Phoenicia is really socking it to the poor people.”
McInerney said a recent superintendent conference had stressed the importance of being keenly aware of people’s socioeconomic backgrounds, language and educational needs. Closing Phoenicia meant that the district was being culturally biased.
Who is this helping?
Richard Wolff was in favor of the central campus plan. “Schools are closed because the population is declining. You just have to face that,” he said. Wolff, a former trustee, said the district hasn’t downsized a single square foot since he was on the board.
“Who is it actually helping?” asked Wolff. “It’s not helping anybody. It’s not helping me as a taxpayer. It’s not helping the kids.”
Former board president Kevin Salem said the resolution is clear to the students and taxpayers of the district, and that he understands the pressure.
“We tried very hard not to reach this moment. You have no idea the amount of machinations and planning and just looking at the other way and trying everything we could. Unfortunately it’s up to the seven of you to have to make a decision,” Salem said.
Parent and former trustee Daphne DeJesus thanked the Phoenicia staff, many of whom were in the audience, for their service.
“There is not a child in the Phoenicia community that they have not impacted, that they have not touched, they have not gone to their house and dropped off snacks, dropped off school bags, dropped off supplies,” she said. “I just implore you to consider not taking a vote tonight.”
Phoenicia PTA president Christina Signore said she has tried to be supportive but increasingly felt the trustees’ minds had been made up all along.
“I’m just devastated. I’m heartbroken,” she said. “I just feel I feel like it’s all for nothing, all this hard work and trying to work together and trying to keep it cool.”
After the meeting, board president Sherry said the decision was not taken lightly. “Believe me, it’s heartbreaking,” she said.