Super wants to 're-set' convo, seek solutions

GUILDERLAND — As the school district grapples with declining enrollment and stagnant funds, the superintendent is hoping to harness the community into discussions that don’t focus just on closing schools.

Last month, a consultant hired by the district to gather data presented a report that concluded with six “scenarios” — five of which involved closing an elementary school to save between $1.2 and $2 million annually. Superintendent Marie Wiles stressed this week that the scenarios, one of which is to leave the schools as they are with no savings, are not recommendations but, rather, possible solutions to explore.

“The district has a responsibility to ask these hard questions when resources are tight,” said Wiles, conceding the process can be uncomfortable. “We have to face the problem square on and work to come up with solutions.”

She also said, “The scenarios have become the problem,” with people galvanizing to keep a school from closing rather than looking for solutions.

Although Wiles said on Tuesday that the district has received only two written responses to Paul Seversky’s building capacity study, The Enterprise has published a score of letters or columns on the subject since his June 16 presentations, and a half-dozen residents spoke at the July 1 board meeting. Since four of the scenarios propose closing Altamont Elementary School, most of the expressed opinions have been in support of keeping the village school open.

The district just this week set up an email address — studyfeedback@guilderlandschools.net — exclusively for comments and questions on the capacity study so that board members and administrators are sure to see responses, said Wiles.

The district had originally scheduled Sept. 20 as a date to hold focus groups to discuss the scenarios as the final part of Seversky’s research. The date for the focus groups to meet has been moved to Nov. 1.

The school board met on July 11 to discuss selecting focus-group members; only 27 people had applied and more than half of them were from Altamont, Wiles said.

“We need to have equal numbers from all five cachment areas and to represent a wide variety of stakeholders,” said Wiles. “We need to get the word out to folks from Lynnwood, Pine Bush, Westmere, and Guilderland,” she said of the areas served by the district’s four other elementary schools.

Board members thought it was difficult to recruit during the summer vacation and so the deadline for applying as well as the date for the groups to meet was pushed back.

On Nov. 1, the focus groups will be held as planned with Seversky acting as a facilitator.  Wiles said the public is welcome to come and observe the process.

An application is available on the district website. Any school district resident may apply; the goal is to get a diverse cross-section representative of the district.

A community meeting will be held on Sept. 29 just before the applications are due. “If someone comes on the 29th and wants to be in a focus group, they can [apply],” Wiles said.

The Sept. 29 session, which will be held at Guilderland High School, from 7 to 9 p.m., will introduce the building capacity study to those who might have missed the June session. On June 16 — once in the afternoon mostly for staff and then again in the evening largely for residents — Seversky went through his report, piece by piece.

Seversky won’t be at the Sept. 29 session, Wiles said; the meeting will feature a brief summary of the report, an overview of the process, and an opportunity for residents to ask questions and give feedback.

Then, less than a week after the Nov. 1 focus-group session, a community conversation on the study will be held on Nov. 6. It will run, again, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the high school with the format to be worked out by the school board’s communication committee.

“Three-fold problem”

“It’s important for the community to know we’re facing a three-fold problem,” Wiles said this week.

First, she said, “We know we have more capacity in our seven buildings than need, based on current enrollment.”

Seversky reports that pupil capacity at the elementary schools is under-utilized by about 14 percent; the middle school is under-utilized by about 25 percent; and the high school is under-utilized by about 25 percent. Enrollment has decreased from 5,323 in 2008 to 4,925 districtwide this past school year.

Second, Wiles went on, “Even under the best circumstances, we’ll have fewer kids in the future.”

She noted that 415 Guilderland High School seniors graduated in June while the incoming kindergarten class is in the low 300s.

Third, Wiles said, “Our income is essentially fixed.”

She noted that there is a state-set tax-levy cap in place and said, “Our reserves are dwindling.”

Wiles said that, when Seversky talked with the district about doing the study a year ago, he said he wouldn’t take the job if it had a plan in mind.

“He focused on capacity and enrollment,” Wiles said. “We truly do not have a solution. We want to do our homework, engage the community, hear viewpoints, and then make an informed recommendation.”

Altamont speaks

At the July 1 school board meeting, a score of supporters for keeping Altamont Elementary School listened to a half-dozen speakers.

Bridget Scally asked for details on the focus groups.

“The most important goal is to have a group of individuals that represent all the stakeholders,” Wiles responded of the 30 to 36 residents who will eventually be chosen.

Seversky will facilitate, she said, explaining, “His role is simply to record what he hears…At the end of the day, he will compile those comments into a summary.” Wiles said the summary would be shared with the board and the community for further deliberation.

She concluded of the focus groups, “The goal is really to have more voices respond to what is in the study.”

Kathy Rucinski then read a letter her 10-year-old daughter, Katrina, had written to the school board that was also submitted to and published in The Enterprise on June 26. “I think Altamont is one of the best schools in the world…,” Katrina wrote. “It’s small and we all know each other so it’s safe and that’s the reason we get to do a lot of special things. So I really hope you do not shut down our school.”

Mrs. Rucinski described the “life-changing teachers and a life-changing principal” at Altamont, and told the board that she understands budgeting and business but asked, “How do you quantify…the caring and concern?”

She concluded, “You’re not just closing a school; you’re crushing a community.”

Stephanie Flaherty told the board that she and her husband chose to live in Altamont because of the school where their oldest son will be in his final year come fall.

She called Seversky’s report “an accountant’s view” concerned with saving money not with the quality of education.

“Our schools are not factories and our students are not widgets,” she said, noting a recent award the school garnered for educating the economically disadvantaged as well as the more prosperous students; she also noted its 2007 Blue Ribbon School status.

Altamont’s unique educational community reaches beyond school walls, she said, and closing it could lead to an application for a community-run charter school.

Todd Shatynski, a doctor specializing in sports medicine at Capital Region Orthopaedics, and a Guilderland graduate, said, when he moved back to the area, he picked Altamont.

He said he wanted to share an analogy with the board. “As a physician…I’m involved in an industry struggling with cutting costs without reducing quality,” he said.

He asked the board to imagine a good old small-town family doctor who knows every patient, and their families and friends; being so involved in their lives is an effective way of delivering medical care, he said.

This imagined doctor works for a good medical group, one of the best in the state, that decides his practice is the smallest and should be consolidated.

“That care is diminished when you lose that connection to the community,” said Shatynski. In this day of fragmentation of our lives, he said, it’s wonderful to live in a community where you can go to concerts in the park and go to lemonade stands there.

“I don’t think anyone would say their medical care is better now than 20 years ago,” said Shatynski, concluding that closing Altamont Elementary “would be making the same kind of mistake medicine made.”

Finally, a man whose children attended Altamont Elementary praised its principal, Peter Brabant, to applause from the crowd.

He went on to read a letter from Kevin Clancy, a local real-estate agent who said he had a five-minute conversation, after an email, with Seversky where they spoke only “in general terms” about the school district being a reason people moved to Guilderland, but the village of Altamont or closing Altamont Elementary School “never came up” during the “superficial conversation.”

Clancy said that, if Altamont Elementary had come up, he would have said the “school’s presence in the village has a major positive effect on property values” and that “the closing of the Altamont Elementary School would have a major negative effect on property values.”

Clancy told The Enterprise that he lives in the village himself and formerly sold many houses with the school as a drawing point.

Wiles said this week that she hopes the session on Sept 29 will convince residents “to engage in a discussion about solutions.”

Wiles went on, “We’ll be reminding the community why we did the study in the first place.” She’ll describe the three-fold problem and then discuss the next steps.

“I’m trying to help folks understand — and not making it happen — that we really are at the beginning of the process,” said Wiles. “We’ll spend a long time talking about solutions. We’d like to re-set the conversation in September.”

The problem has been defined, she reiterated. Once potential solutions are identified, “We’ll begin the work,” said Wiles. This work could include looking at transportation, redistricting, or planning for re-purposing buildings.

“We’re at the beginning, not the end,” she stressed. “We’re trying very hard, very hard. This is not a done deal.”

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