BKW discusses uses for Westerlo School approves study

By Zach Simeone

HILLTOWNS — As the Berne-Knox-Westerlo school district considers selling its 60-year-old Westerlo School, future enrollment figures are being examined, and a possible decades-old agreement is being investigated.

Since it was built, the traditional brick building just outside the Westerlo hamlet had housed BKW students in Kindergarten, first grade, and second grade. With tax rates on the rise and enrollment numbers in a freefall, the school was closed in 2005.

The Westerlo School Advisory Committee estimated that closing the school would save the district over $100,000, not including what the district could make by selling the building.

At its Dec. 8 meeting, the BKW school board unanimously approved a title search on the Westerlo School after Helen Lounsbury, president of the school board, recalled reading about a promise made, back when Westerlo merged with Berne-Knox to form BKW, that the building would always remain a school, even if it were to eventually change hands.

The district has asked attorney Robert Scofield to take charge of the title search. “We asked Mr. Scofield to either do the search himself, or to recommend another member of the firm or some other attorney to do the search,” said Superintendent Steve Schrade.

The deed for the Westerlo School, dated Feb. 23, 1946, is hundreds of pages in length.

Following the motion to authorize a title search, board member Maureen Sikule made a motion for a five-year facilities-use evaluation. After amending her motion to three years, the board approved it unanimously.

“What [Sikule] is looking for is a projection of what classes would be held where in the two buildings that house our students right now,” Schrade said this week. “Room use, facilities use, where the kids will be assigned for instruction — based on student population, we look at what programs would be assigned to what buildings, and if there’s going to be a need, in the next three years, to make use of the classrooms in [the Westerlo School],” he said.

“It’s basically taking a look at the facility to see if the district needs the facility for any reason,” BKW Business Administrator Timothy Holmes said of the facilities-use evaluation. “There’s a number of possible uses. Pre-K possibly.”

But before making these motions, the board members discussed their respective views on the future of the Westerlo School.

Three organizations have expressed interest in purchasing the building: the Helderberg Christian School, which currently occupies the building; the Westerlo Fire Department; and the town of Westerlo. Councilman Edward Rash has said that he thinks the building should become Westerlo’s new town hall.

Board member Sean O’Connor said that selling the school would be a mistake. Sikule agreed, saying that the district is looking to bring more special education students to the district, which will demand more classroom space. “If we need more classroom space, it’s there,” O’Connor added later.

“It’s a major decision,” said board member Jack Harlow of the assumed need for more classroom space, “and it’s going to be based on uncertain projections.”

In 2004, the district commissioned a study by Cornell University that predicted a district-wide decline in enrollment over the next 10 years. Enrollment numbers have decreased steadily ever since.

While the district had 1,100 students in 2003, enrollment is down to 1,040 students this year. One projection from the 2004 study showed a decrease to 819 students by 2013.

While the school is a treasure to the Westerlo community, it is not being properly cared for, Harlow said. He doesn’t think that the district can afford to take proper care of it.

Value and costs

In October of 2004, an appraisal found the building was worth $185,000.

In a recent letter to the board, Schrade advised against the district re-occupying the Westerlo School with its kindergarten and pre-kindergarten students because of several cost issues.

First, as it would be a public school, the building would require upgrading to satisfy code requirements, not currently being met by the building’s present occupant, the private Helderberg Christian School. One such upgrade would be remodeling the bathrooms to make them handicapped accessible. These upgrades would cost about $20,000, Schrade said.

Also, providing these children with bus rides to the Westerlo School would increase annual transportation costs by $20,000, he said. An additional $80,000 would be required for hiring a custodian and a food-service helper, and paying for utilities, insurance, itinerant teacher costs, operations and maintenance, based on projections some years back of how much would be saved per year if the school were closed.

Before being reoccupied, the building would require $108,500 worth of repairs, Schrade said.

This total, according to Holmes, includes: repairing brick on the building’s exterior damaged by water and salt erosion, $30,000; repairing the exterior doors, $25,000; repairing the pillars at the front of the building, $5,000; repairing the water-damaged wood trim around the building’s exterior, to be painted or wrapped with aluminum, $5,000; repairing the gutters at the front of the building, $4,000; re-pointing the chimney, $3,000; repairing the gymnasium floor, $3,500: removing an abandoned underground water-storage tank, $8,000; and connecting to the municipal water supply, as requested by the Albany County Health Department, the cost of which could range between $15,000 and $25,000, he said.

“If you want to make it something, you have to reach into your pocket and pull out the money to make it something,” Harlow said of the Westerlo School. “If we can’t afford to take care of it, it should be sold.”

More Hilltowns News

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.