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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 31, 2011

Tears follow Bethlehem board’s decision to close Clarksville school

By Saranac Hale Spencer

BETHLEHEM — Police presence was requested at the school board meeting last night “to make sure that we have order in this auditorium,” said Superintendent Michael Tebbano before the board’s vote on whether it would close the Clarksville Elementary School or not.

The packed hall was silent after the board voted, 5 to 2, to close the school before next fall, with several women crying into tissues.  The vote went against the superintendent’s recommendation and against the board president’s call for further study.

In January, the school board asked Tebbano to look into the feasibility of closing the Clarksville Elementary School and the administrative offices at 90 Adams Place after a “fiscal think tank” the district had created in the fall included those options in a list of several possible solutions to fill the budget gap created by the downturn in the economy in recent years and the cuts in state aid.

The following month, Tebbano presented his study to the board, which then held two two-hour public forums in March.

Rural Clarksville Elementary School, which opened in 1948, is the only district building in the town of New Scotland — the other five elementary schools, including the Eagle School that was built in 2008, are located in Bethlehem, as are the middle and high schools.

The construction of the Eagle School and the additions to other schools including Clarksville, which were all part of a $93 million bond that passed in 2003, along with the recent redistricting of students have been cited as evidence of the board’s shortsightedness by residents as they advocated for further study before closing Clarksville.

“Obviously I am responsible… for a lot of those decisions,” said Lynne Lenhardt, who has been on the board for 23 years, as she began the board’s discussion of Clarksville last night.

School Board President Jim Dering agreed with her that the original intent of looking into the closure was not for it to be considered for the coming school year, but as an option for the future.  Without fully examining all the consequences, he said, the board could end up with complaints about large class sizes in Eagle and Slingerlands, which are the schools slated to absorb Clarksville’s students.

“This should be looked at in a more systemic way,” he said, of conducting a larger study.

“I think this is one of those situations where we just have to jump,” said board member Michael Cooper, after asserting that the district is facing years of budget shortfalls and that he has faith in the research presented by Tebbano.

Charmaine Wijeysinghe told her fellow board members that she had first been swayed by residents advocating to keep Clarksville open, but was later swayed by arguments made to close the school.  She sees it as a budgetary issue, she said, adding that, as a member of the school board, she wants to meet the needs of the whole district.

Since she began serving on the board, Wijeysinghe said, she could see tension in Clarksville.  “I don’t see it as a unified community,” she said, adding that the district should consider opening a language magnet school in the building.

“It’s dividing our community,” said board member Laura Bierman, requesting that the board make a decision on the fate of the school that night, rather than holding off for further study.  “I have faith in the study,” she said of Tebbano’s report, adding, “It might not be exact.”

It would be irresponsible for the district to maintain six buildings if it can teach all of its elementary students in five, Bierman said.  It is the district’s “fiduciary responsibility to do it in five buildings,” she said.

Tebbano, who hadn’t made a recommendation to the board until last night, recommended keeping Clarksville open and studying the issue further.  He warned the board against “another shortsighted decision” and said, “Thinking about it a little longer won’t hurt anything.”  Tebbano recently announced that he plans to retire on Jan. 1, 2012.  He became superintendent in 2008 after having spent years as a music teacher and, more recently, as a building principal.

Lenhardt made a motion to leave the school open and form a committee that would study the issue more in depth; it was seconded by Dering.

After some discussion, the board decided to first take a vote on closing the school. Wijeysinghe made the motion, which passed with only Lenhardt and Dering voting against it.  There was no need, then, for a vote on creating a committee for further study.

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