Peeved Pine Bush parents petition school district to change pre-K plans

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

“A nightmare” is how Mark Grimm an Albany County legislator and parent described traffic at Farnsworth Middle School.

GUILDERLAND — In September, ninety 3- and 4-year-olds are expected to attend pre-kindergarten in Victory Child Care classes housed in Guilderland schools.

The state-certified woman-owned business is based in Albany and is one of the original handful of General Services Administration child-care centers, founded in 1989.

Two classrooms, with 15 students each, are slated for Pine Bush Elementary School where a petition was started, raising objections to the plan. The district held a meeting at Pine Bush Tuesday night, leaving many of the 60 attendees unsatisfied. One parent called it a “done deal.”

Because of declining enrollment across the suburban district, a consultant was hired several years ago to study what to do about empty classrooms. His recommendation to close one of the district’s five elementary schools — Altamont’s was named as the most likely — created a firestorm among supporters of neighborhood schools.

Consequently, the school board backed off from following through with any of the consultant’s recommendations and instead held a community forum on how to proceed. Ultimately, a task force researched four options for filling the empty classrooms — adult day care, leasing to commercial interests, housing business start-ups, or leasing to a pre-kindergarten program.

The board voted unanimously for the pre-kindergarten program. Two classrooms were designated in each of three schools — Farnsworth Middle School, Altamont Elementary School, and Pine Bush Elementary School.

Some parents and staff at Pine Bush Elementary School raised concerns and objections to the plan, circulating a petition last week that garnered over 100 signatures.

“The Guilderland Board of Education has recently signed a contract with Victory Child Care…with no transparency, and has refused to consider the concerns of the teachers, students and parents who are affected by the changes to come,” says the petition. “The board’s decisions have taken place largely behind closed doors, and with disregard and disrespect for anyone expressing concerns about their plans.”

The petition goes on to request that the two pre-K classrooms at Pine Bush be placed in the “red pod” rather than the “blue pod” as planned — the pods are clusters of classrooms. The blue pod has kindergarten classes and one of the concerns parents raised is that the kindergartners would be distracted by the nearby preschool classrooms as well as by a playground for the preschoolers, visible from kindergarten classroom windows.

Tuesday night’s session opened with a detailed presentation by Superintendent Marie Wiles going over the history — conducted in many open and sometimes heated sessions — of the study’s rejected recommendations in August 2014, and the “summit” that followed in November where “85 stakeholders…overwhelmingly...said repurpose space.”

Wiles explained how then the task force rated each of the four options based on need, feasibility, how it fit with the district’s mission, and if it would generate revenue. The committee that studied pre-K decided it would be “cost prohibitive” for the district to provide its own pre-kindergarten program.

In October 2015, a 36-page analysis looked at classroom space, assessing its use on school programs as low, medium, or high. “The board of education would only allow leasing low-impact space,” Wiles recalled, identifying six classrooms across the district.

After consulting with building principals, Wiles said, these classrooms were selected for leasing: two art rooms at Farnsworth Middle School, two classrooms on the lower wing at Altamont Elementary School, and two classrooms in the blue pod at Pine Bush.

“Once we determined the space, we could write the RFP,” said Wiles; the requests for proposals were released in January after which the district led tours to over 20 interested people.

Ultimately, two proposals came in: the YMCA wanted to rent the two classrooms at Pine Bush Elementary School, and Victory Child Care wanted to rent all six classrooms.

In March, the proposals were reviewed with a rubric. Victory Child Care scored 23 and the YMCA scored 22.

The Enterprise reported then that Guilderland would net $195,692 over five years with the Victory proposal. The first year, the district would pay for fencing at the three schools and would pay to modify bathrooms at Farnsworth for preschool students.

In April, at its budget workshop, the school board awarded the RFP to Victory Child Care.

The board is slated to sign a contract with Victory at its July 5 meeting, Wiles said.

“The board has not awarded a contract in the dark of night behind closed doors,” Wiles told the crowd, alluding to the wording in the petition that alleged a contract had already been signed.

The district is planning a three-year contract, with a year renewal up to five years, Wiles said.

The six room rentals are expected to bring in $195,000 over five years, Wiles said, with $17,000 in start-up costs. She stressed that the central goal was not to make money but rather to repurpose space in order to keep all five elementary schools open.

“We worked on this more publicly than anything I can think of,” said Wiles, citing coverage in district newsletters and on Guilderland’s website as well as over a dozen articles in The Enterprise.

She said a key factor in choosing the blue pod was the pre-K provider needs designated bathrooms for the 15 students in each classroom and the blue pod, built for the youngest students, already has a bathroom in each classroom.

Clifford Nooney, the district’s building and grounds supervisor, had estimated that it would cost $40,000 to build a bathroom in the red pod, Wiles said, which she called “cost prohibitive.”

She also said that, as a construction project, building the bathroom would need approval from the State Education Department, which would take six months or more — “not a viable solution for September,” she said.

At each of the three Guilderland locations, Victory Child Care will run classes from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., said Wiles. During school hours, all pre-kindergartners and their caregivers will enter the schools through the front door, going through the security measures already in place. Once school hours are over, back-door buzzer systems may be used.

The Victory classes will run over vacations and school breaks when Guilderland students are not present. The pre-K Victory students will be included in school safety drills and they will have access to gym, cafeteria, and library spaces at times when Guilderland students are not using those facilities, Wiles said.

The district is also erecting a chain-link fence on Pine Bush school grounds that will surround play equipment provided by Victory Child Care. Victory will have its own insurance, said Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders.

Pointing to projected aerial views of the schools, Sanders described where pre-kindergartners’ caregivers would go to drop off the preschool students. Altamont Elementary School has a separate loop that will be used for drop-off, he said.

At Farnsworth, Sanders said, pre-K parents will go up the hill to park in a small lot in back. And at Pine Bush, new parking spaces will be added this summer as part of a capital improvement project already underway; also, unused handicapped parking spots will be opened for regular use.

Victory will employ two staffers for each classroom, or six for each school, said Wiles.


The Enterprise — Melissa Hale Spencer
Marie Wiles speaks during the meeting Tuesday.


Questions and concerns

Some parents were concerned that enrollment would grow at Pine Bush Elementary and there would not be adequate space.

Wiles said that, unlike Guilderland or Westmere elementary schools, “Pine Bush has a very stable enrollment cycle.”

She also said, “We would not send children to other schools.”

Wiles told The Enterprise earlier, “If we only had Guilderland students at Pine Bush, it would have many empty classrooms.” For years, the neighborhood school has been sustained by rentals to outside agencies, currently mostly to the Board of Cooperative Educational Services. Previously, a pre-kindergarten program rented classroom spaces at Pine Bush for over a decade.

Wiles also pointed out that the community isn’t involved in the assignment of classroom space at any of the district’s schools.

“Our first priority is our Guilderland children,” said Renée DeLuke, the mother of a first-grader and a fourth-grader at Pine Bush. “We do not want overcrowded classrooms.”

Another concern was the current lack of parking during special events, which would be made worse by adding pre-K to the mix, parents said. One woman noted she grew up in an urban environment and said, “I just park further away.”

Several others took exception to this suggestion, stating neighbors wouldn’t like it or visiting grandparents would be unable to walk far.

Indicating that parking for special events is a problem at many district schools, board member Seema Rivera said, as a parent of a Guilderland elementary student, she had to park across busy Route 20, at the YMCA, in order to attend a school event.

Mark Grimm, who identified himself as an Albany County legislator but said he was speaking as a parent, stated the traffic at Farnsworth Middle School was “a nightmare.”

He went on, “My daughter was almost hit last week.”

Noting that the district’s annual budget is $96 million, Grimm said of the rental revenues, “This seems to be a small piece of revenue to create such a disruption.”

“The goal was: Can we keep all five elementary schools open,” said Wiles. “The goal was not to close a financial gap.”

Grimm also said of the drop-off plan for pre-K students at Farnsworth, “It’s crazy. How can we dump a lot of new cars in there?”

“It will be a staggered drop-off,” said Sanders. Most of the pre-K students, he said, are expected from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m., while the heaviest bus traffic at Farnsworth is from 8:30 to 8:45 a.m. “Parents can drop off on either side of that 15 minutes,” Sanders said.

School board member Christopher McManus sounded frustrated that several in the audience called Victory a day-care rather than a pre-kindergarten program. “That none of you see the benefit of pre-K is surprising to me,” he said as some in the audience shouted at him.

“They’re going to teach pre-K,” he went on. “I interviewed the people. This is what we’re putting in the contract. They do learning the entire time.”

Some in the audience sounded skeptical. “Will it be in the contract for all to see?” asked DeLuke.

“We typically don’t have curriculum language in a contract,” responded Wiles.

She went on to say the educators at Victory Child Care have a “research-based curriculum” and are “thoughtful about student experience from when they arrive to when they leave.”

She concluded, “I wish I had Victory Child Care when my kid was 3.”

Bruce Gall, the father of a kindergartner and first-grader at Pine Bush, calculated the district would be taking in about $6,000 per year per classroom while creating traffic and security concerns. “Is it really worth it?” he asked.

“Our goal was to find a purposeful way to use excess space…That’s where we were three years ago: Should we close a school?”


The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
“They do learning the entire time,” says Guilderland School Board member Christopher McManus, telling the crowd at Pine Bush Elementary School he was surprised they couldn’t see the benefits of have a pre-kindergarten program at their school.


Maggie Williams, the mother of a first-grader at Pine Bush, said she didn’t think it was a good plan.

“We probably needed to hear from you six months or a year ago,” said Wiles as the crowd let out a low rumble.

Williams also said that having 3- and 4-year-olds near kindergartners would be disruptive. Wiles replied that she didn’t think it would be disruptive.

“We’re overwhelmed with rentals,” said Kerry Dineen, citing “10 classrooms plus” already rented out at Pine Bush. Dineen teaches music at the school and had spoken to the school board in March about staff concerns over adding more rental spaces. She told the board then, “The staff is concerned about something else coming in without something else going…Something’s got to give. It’s crowded.”

On Tuesday, Dineen said, “These details didn’t come out” until spring. She urged, “Be flexible,” and concluded to applause, “Maybe it should have been in Albany schools; we’re kind of past that.”

Phil Metzger, the father of a Pine Bush kindergartner, asked if a school had to be closed. Wiles said that would be a question for the board. If the community wants five elementary schools, Wiles said, the question becomes: “What are the trade-offs we have to make?”

She went on, “There might be some inconvenience…but there are some real benefits, providing our youngest learners with great opportunities…These 3- and 4-year-olds, most, will come to our schools. Victory will provide kindergarten teachers with in-depth information.”

“Dr. Wiles,” said Williams, “I wouldn’t necessarily want my pre-K teacher reaching out to my child’s kindergarten teacher…The way you’re speaking, it’s a done deal. I’m not hearing you’re willing to explore the red pod.”

“I don’t think we can,” said Wiles, stating the space couldn’t be ready by September.

“You’re taking the word of Victory as being true in terms of pre-K bathrooms,” said Gall.

Wiles said she would research and post the regulation from the Office of Children and Family Services on the district website.

Monica Mahaffey, assistant commissioner for communications for the Office of Children and Family Services, told The Enterprise on Wednesday that one toilet and one wash basin must be available for  every group of 15 preschool children. The regulation reads, “Convenient, adequate and sanitary toilet facilities must be provided for the children in a separate, properly ventilated room readily accessible to children.”

School board member Gloria Towle-Hilt asked, if the district were able to put the two pre-K classrooms in the red pod instead of the blue pod, would all the other concerns “go away.”

Her question was answered with a resounding chorus of no's.

“If we’re not making money, how does it save a school?” asked Kristen Husson, the mother of a kindergartner and a second-grader at Pine Bush.

She responded, “We can look at the district as a whole.”

“That doesn’t matter to us,” said Husson.

Colleen O’Connell, who is retiring after 12 years on the board, had the last words, closing out the two-hour session.

“I have nine days left on the school board,” she told the crowd, urging those with an interest in school matters to run for the board. She noted that this year’s election was uncontested.

O’Connell went on, “I had three kids go through this school….We didn’t have the security you have now. I never once felt my kids weren’t taken care of.”

She said the children would be safe and went on about the advantages of having Victory Child Care in the school. “We don’t have a non-denominational pre-K program in the town,” O’Connell said.

“My middle kid had trouble learning to read.” She imagined how wonderful it would have been if he had been able to teach a 3- or 4-year-old right in his school building how to read.

“You’re not understanding how much Victory people are working with the school district, and we have the same goals…caring for kids.”

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