Sheriff has plans for former Clarksville school

Big plans: The Clarksville Elementary School was closed in 2011 and is now leased by the Albany County Sheriff's Office. 

NEW SCOTLAND — Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple has a vision of bringing support services closer to the rural Hilltowns, housing them in the former Clarksville Elementary School at the base of the Helderbergs. Supervisors from Berne and Knox are excited about the idea.

The school, part of the Bethlehem Central School district, was closed in 2011; the next year, the sheriff’s office began leasing it.

“It’s a diamond in the rough,” Apple said of the building.

“I’ve been working out there for about 30 years,” Apple told The Enterprise this week of the Hilltowns.  “The folks out there don’t like to go down to Albany. I’d like to bring services closer to them.”

Apple said he had a brief conversation with Albany County executive Daniel McCoy six or eight months ago. “I told him my vision,” he said.

Asked for his thoughts on the matter, McCoy responded with a statement. “Our county departments are currently working with residents of our Hilltowns on thousands of cases involving social services, mental health services, and probation services,” McCoy said.

“We provide recreational programming for our children and programming for our seniors, veterans and at-risk families,” he went on. “We currently offer congregate meal programs in Berne, youth programs at Lawson Lake and with partners also in Ravena and Altamont and a children’s mental health clinic with the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District. We continue to explore new options for how to successfully deliver the best programs and services to our residents at a variety of locations and with several partners throughout the area.”

The Bethlehem district sent out a message to subscribers to its school news notifier and plans to send a similar message to all residents of Clarksville this week, said JoEllen Gardner, in the district’s communications office. The Bethlehem School Board will host a community meeting, on the possibility of selling the school, on March 8 at 7 p.m. at Bethlehem’s high school at 700 Delaware Ave.

“Before we advance any plans regarding the future of Clarksville, it is imperative that we bring all stakeholders together, allowing questions to be asked and answered, and to determine whether or not we move forward on this,” said Bethlehem Superintendent Jody Monroe in the SNN message. “As a school, Clarksville holds special memories for many people. It has also been successfully and carefully repurposed by the Sheriff’s Office, who wants to establish permanent roots in the community.”

Closing the school

First opened in 1948, the Clarksville school was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008; it served as a center for the rural hamlet of Clarksville.

In 2003, Bethlehem voters approved a $93 million bond issue to address increasing enrollment in the district by expanding the Clarksville school and building a new elementary school — Eagle. The district had considered expanding Clarksville from 12 to 18 classrooms but decided, instead, to split the growth between a slightly expanded Clarksville and a brand new school.

The committee evaluating the options concluded that new construction and some expansion would be best, then-superintendent Leslie Loomis said, because it was important to the district to keep Clarksville a small neighborhood school.

According to a 2010 long-range planning study conducted by the Bethlehem school district, the percentage of potential for residential development over the next five years, until 2015, was 83 percent in Clarksville — the highest for the district’s six elementary schools.

In March 2011, after enrollment began declining, the Bethlehem School Board, in a split vote and against the recommendation of the superintendent at the time, decided to close the Clarksville school. Members who voted in favor of the closure said it would save $900,000, helping to close that year’s $1 million budget gap. At the time, Bethlehem had six elementary schools; the other five are all in the town of Bethlehem while Clarksville served students who lived in the town of New Scotland.

The New Scotland Town Board passed a resolution in 2011, opposing the closing of the school. Thomas Dolin, the New Scotland supervisor at the time, pointed out that the town of New Scotland paid 8 percent of Bethlehem school taxes and its children made up 5 percent of the district’s enrollment, noting New Scotland residents in the Bethlehem school district more than pay for Clarksville Elementary. Building the new Eagle school, which opened in 2008, created the crisis, Dolin said.

After Clarksville Elementary closed, its students were re-assigned to either Eagle Elementary School or Slingerlands Elementary School.

The future?

Currently, Apple said, the former school building houses the county’s emergency management center, which becomes the headquarters for both manmade and natural disasters and serves as a home base for 85 to 90 deputies on patrol. The school’s gym, he said, is used by the community for functions like “teaching karate to kids.” Additionally, New Scotland pays to have its town court held in the building.

Altogether, including the cafeteria and gym, the building is about 32,800 square feet, Apple said, and currently has about 5,000 square feet vacant.

But, he said, the space is not being used “very efficiently.” For example, he said, a 900-square-foot classroom might have three or four desks in it. Also, he said, the Bethlehem school district uses four classrooms to store things like unused desks.

Apple said, if the district were to sell the school to the county, the space would most likely be reconfigured to be used more efficiently.

“It’s shaped like a backwards C,” he said of the school building. He envisions clearing out the front portion to use for county services “like a satellite” of what is now offered in Albany. “I’d like to see the county executive himself have a desk here,” he said.

Asked how much money it would cost, Apple said he didn’t know but he thought it might be likely, with the Bethlehem district now having to pay to maintain it, that the district would want to “unload it.”

The Albany County assessment rolls for New Scotland list the school building and the 12.21 acres it stands on as having a combined full-market value of  $1,702,300.

Currently, Apple said, the county pays $4,000 per month to lease the building and gets back $1,500 per month from the town of New Scotland for holding court there.

“I can’t pay a lot of money,” the sheriff said, noting that the building, if sold to the county, would “continue to be a community gathering place — for seniors, Scouts, whatever.”

As school-district enrollment declines, Apple said, “Why have a $33,000-square-foot empty building? You’d get dust balls the first year, dust balls and graffiti the second year, criminal mischief the third year, and on and on.”

He concluded, “It will come down to dollars and cents.”

Hilltown views

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Knox Supervisor Vasilios Lefkaditis. “Any time you can make it easier on the Hilltown residents, it’s a plus.”

Travel from the Hilltowns to Albany can be difficult, said Lefkaditis, because weather can be unpredictable.

“Sometimes it’s lovely in Albany and it’s two feet of snow in the Hilltowns,” he said.

Lefkaditis said that funding for youth and senior services was increased in this year’s town budget, and includes programs such as meal services and trips for the seniors and sports and other events for the town’s youth. But, he added, “We could always use more senior and youth services.”

“I think the sheriff’s on the right track,” he said.

Westerlo town Councilman William Bichteman said that he trusts the sheriff’s judgement, but did not have enough information at the moment to speak on the issue. He did remark that not everyone in the Hilltowns is able to “zip down to Albany.” Westerlo Supervisor Richard Rapp could not be reached for comment.

In Berne, attempts have been made to send a county official on a part-time basis to an office in the town’s senior center, said Supervisor Kevin Crosier.

“Hilltowners are very proud folk; they don’t really need services,” he said, but added that, when residents do need services, it is difficult to get them to go to downtown Albany.

Currently, Berne offers a shuttle bus for shopping trips for seniors twice a month and a meal service three days a week, he said.

Crosier said a range of county services available nearby would be appreciated, including the county’s Home Energy Assistance Program, the county’s Department of Social Services, legal aid, and services through the county’s Department of Aging.

“It could even be half a day in Clarksville and half a day in Berne,” he said. “You don’t need a full-time office.”

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