From the editor: Pick up the tools at hand to shape a bright future

"Melencolia" by Albrecht Dürer

We witnessed democracy in action last Tuesday night at the Guilderland School Board meeting. And it was a glorious sight.

School board members are the elected representatives of the people, and the board listened to concerns raised by Altamont residents about a consultant’s report that concluded by proposing five cost-saving scenarios — four of those were to close Altamont Elementary School.

Unlike the town and village boards we cover, where all of the representatives are elected by the people, school boards hire well-paid education leaders. Some boards — made up of unpaid, dedicated volunteers — merely rubber stamp the professionals’ initiatives. The Guilderland board, in its first discussion of the controversial report, had an intelligent and meaningful conversation and ultimately voted to set aside the recommendations.

At a critical point in the discussion, Superintendent Marie Wiles looked at the board members and said, “In the end, it’s up to you folks.”

And so it was.

We commend Wiles for her leadership. She arrived at Guilderland at a time when the highly regarded, typically well-funded suburban district was facing stagnant state aid and declining enrollment. Simply put: There is too much capacity for the current number of students. Added to that, a bit later, came a state-set tax-levy limit.

As rumors swirled about school closings, Wiles recommended hiring a consultant to gather data so that intelligent choices could be made. On this page two months ago, we compared that process favorably to the lack of process at the neighboring Bethlehem district where, against the superintendent’s recommendation, the board, in a split vote, hastily closed Clarksville Elementary over strenuous protests from that community.

The problem needs to be defined, and defined accurately, before an acceptable solution can be found. Wiles told us last week that the district will look to clarify data that residents have raised questions about. This is a wise and necessary step.

It is important for the community — all of it — to be engaged. Colleen O’Connell, a thoughtful and often outspoken board member — one of two who voted against the motion to disregard the scenarios — said to the crowd from Altamont at last week’s meeting, “You guys are engaged because your school is at risk...We need to hear from other catchements.”

She is right. The silent majority needs to be heard; the school board represents all of the district, not just the residents of Altamont. That phrase, “silent majority,” was, of course popularized by Richard Nixon in the 1960s, addressing those Americans who weren’t protesting the Vietnam War and were not part of the public discourse. While it is largely used politically, “silent majority” was first used as a euphemism for the dead.  We know from decades of editing a weekly newspaper’s opinion pages that it can seem as if a community is dead, until a particular issue brings it to life.

We’ve printed dozens of letters and several columns from Altamont’s mayor in the two months since the consultant’s report was released. The school board members all subscribe to our paper, so they were reading as well as listening. But we didn’t hear from a single writer who might have expressed another view — say, an elderly taxpayer who could scarcely afford to live in her lifelong home and would welcome the $1.2 million to $2 million annual relief promised by the consultant’s scenarios.

We urge citizens across the school district to get involved now. Comb the report, posted online at the district’s website, to see if the data reflects reality — Are the assumptions about school practices correct? Are the assumptions about growth and development correct?

Perhaps the district could form a task force, with a narrow mission and a tight time frame, to test the gathered data for accuracy and add any missing data that would be relevant.

The next step the consultant had envisioned was to set up focus groups, as part of his research, to explore his scenarios. This, of course, would by design involve a cross-section of the community rather than those vocal about a school closing. But, the board was right to reject this premise since it was focused on school closings.

Wiles pointed out, while the focus-group meeting and a subsequent “brainstorming” session are still “on the books,” their format is now unclear. As she put it, without the scenarios to discuss, there is no longer a “springboard” for the focus groups.

We propose having the brainstorming session first. Alex Faickney Osborn popularized the concept in the 1950s, maintaining that groups could come up with better and more creative ideas than individuals. Osborn proposed generating a lot of ideas, withholding criticism, welcoming off-beat thoughts, and then combining and improving the ideas generated to form a single better idea.

Once the school board has generated ideas in a community brainstorming session, the combined good ideas can be narrowed to a point where focus groups could be held and the ideas could be explored. The most basic way to keep current services without any more job cuts — 180 have been lost in recent years — is to reduce pay. But, if that’s not palatable, alternative ideas could be generated.

Here’s one off-beat idea, with some background first. The consultant determined that the elementary schools are underused by 14 percent while the middle school and high school are each underused by about 25 percent. After the baby-boom generation passed through nearly 50 years ago, the district closed two of its five elementary schools — Fort Hunter and Guilderland Elementary. With the echo-boom generation and growth in suburban development, Guilderland Elementary School was eventually re-opened. (Fort Hunter had been sold and torn down, so Pine Bush Elementary was built nearby.) Guilderland Elementary had been rented in the interim years to a Hebrew academy.

Now for the idea: Move the sixth grades out of the middle school and back to the elementary schools, where child-centered middle-school team teaching models could still be employed. This would free up an entire school-within-a-school at the middle school, which could be rented out to another organization, preferably another school. (Several area religious schools are currently housed in unlikely spaces.)

That would keep the five elementary schools filled to capacity and running in their neighborhoods where parents and community members want them. It would produce income for the district and it would use empty spaces.

We’re not proposing this as the solution. We’re merely trying to point out that, once the problem is clearly defined, we believe the community can work together to find a workable answer.

“We’re all in this together,” said Board President Barbara Fraterrigo at last Tuesday’s meeting. Indeed, we are. Those without children are just as affected, not only because their property values would decline if the school system did, but because good schools create healthy communities in many ways.

Fraterrigo followed that statement with an important warning: “I just want to caution everybody that, at some point, the day may come when some school in this district has to close.”

What the school board has done is given us some breathing room. The same problems exist — fewer students, stagnant revenues, too much space — but we have a chance to put our heads together, not just advocating for one school or another, and find a way to a bright future.

“The initial problem,” said board member Gloria Towle-Hilt, “is, where are we going to get the money?...It’s not going to come out of the sky.”

She’s right. It’s not. It’s going to come from us. Let’s put the same kind of thoughtful energy villagers are putting into saving their school to work for all of us.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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