Close a school?

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Educational consultant Paul Seversky presents his report Monday on cost-effective ways to organize Guilderland’s schools. “The study is a road map that doesn’t tell you what road to take,” said Seversky, wrapping up the afternoon session. “Frankly, you can make your own roads. It’s often emotional which it should be.”

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Altamont Elementary Principal Peter Brabant listens Monday afternoon to consultant Paul Seversky present a report on reorganizing schools to save money. Four out of the report’s six proposals involve closing the village school. “So you’re kind of a harbinger of death?” Brabant asked after Seversky said that he had performed similar studies for a dozen or so other districts and most of them had subsequently closed schools.

GUILDERLAND — School district residents and staff expressed surprise, concern, and outrage Monday as they sought to come to terms with pages of data that led a consultant to recommend re-organizing district schools to save money.

Paul Seversky presented six “scenarios”: The first is to keep all five elementary schools serving kindergarten through fifth grade, the middle school for grades six through eight, and the high school for grades nine through 12 — realizing no savings.

The other plans involve savings ranging from $1.2 million to $2 million annually. Four of the proposals would close Altamont Elementary; one would close Lynnwood Elementary. The high school remains static in all of the plans while grade configurations vary at the lower levels.

The district hired a consultant, superintendent Marie Wiles said, as it faced steadily decreasing enrollment along with reduced aid. “There comes a point,” she said to a crowd of about a hundred at the high school on Monday evening, “you have to ask the question: Is there a way you can do this more efficiently…How much longer can we cut, cut, cut, and be less than we are?”

Residents are welcome to apply to be considered for focus groups; the 30 or so members will be carefully selected to represent a cross-section of the district. The groups will meet in September and information gleaned from their discussion will become part of a larger community discussion, Wiles said.

At Tuesday’s school board meeting, member Colleen O’Connell asked, “Why do we care about 30 or 36 people more than what we hear in community conversations?”

Wiles responded that it was Seversky’s method of “fleshing out data more completely” on a topic “as emotional as this.” At a community conversation, she said, “Not everyone’s voice is heard” while members of the focus groups will be “ready willing, and able” to express the views of a particular constituency.

After the focus-group data is presented, the board will home in on certain options and involve the community for discussion, Wiles said. She said of Seversky, “He gave us a relatively blunt document; it’s not nuanced. You need a document as nuanced as what we do on the budget...That’s the work we’ll be doing.”

Eventually, the elected school board members will make the decision on what changes, if any, should be made. No end date has been set for a decision although Wiles anticipates it could take a year to a year and a half.

Wiles cautioned board members on Tuesday night to be careful about making stray comments on proposed scenarios. The tenor she observed at Monday night’s meeting was, “People believe we made a decision, which is not true. It will be tough,” she said of not commenting, “because it will be months and people will want to know what we think.”

“We don’t want to make a move until we’re confident it’s the right move…” Wiles said to the Monday-night crowd at Guilderland High School. “We’ll do our homework,” she said.

“You will know when the cake’s done,” Seversky told the crowd. He also asked, “How broad are the shoulders of the taxpayers?”

Seversky — a former English teacher and district superintendent with a Ph.D. in educational administration from Syracuse University — said he had performed similar studies for a dozen or so other districts and most of them had subsequently closed schools.

“So you’re kind of a harbinger of death?” asked Altamont Principal Peter Brabant at the afternoon session, held at Farnsworth Middle School and attended by about three score people, mostly staff members.

Brabant also asked about the effects closing a village school would have on property values in Altamont and why one of the “scenarios” couldn’t be re-districting so students would be more evenly distributed among the five elementary schools.

Seversky maintained that property values hadn’t declined in other places where schools were closed; rather, he asserted, it is the overall quality of the district that matters.

He also said that redistricting wouldn’t solve the dilemma as enrollment continues to decline, and that Guilderland has the software and expertise to do that itself without paying for a consultant.

After the meeting, Brabant told The Enterprise that the recommendations, posted with Seversky’s report on the district’s website last Tuesday, had “shocked the school and shocked the community.”

Altamont Elementary staff held a meeting last week, Brabant said, and determined, “We have a good school district and a good school board and this is a genuine attempt to be responsive. We want to be thoughtful and ask good questions.”

He also said, “The fact we have a village school in a close-knit community is a positive piece we need to bring forward.”

Brabant concluded, “The worst scenario would be a fight over this school or that school. If we devolve to that, we won’t solve the problem the way we want our children to solve problems. I hope the process is genuine. In no way do I see closing Altamont as having positive potential.”

“Looking through a glass darkly”

The village’s mayor, James Gaughan, told The Enterprise yesterday, “I’m hopeful the promised long conversations will take place. There’s a larger picture to be looked at.”

He went on, “The consultant may contend he’s just a guest observer and just holding a mirror, but it’s a dark and poor picture, certainly for Altamont....It’s almost like looking through a glass darkly.”

Gaughan said he had reviewed, online, similar studies that Seversky had done for East Greenbush and South Glens Falls. “They both opted not to close schools, “ said Gaughan. “There has to be discussion about more effective use of buildings.”

He also noted that Altamont Elementary was recognized by the federal government as a Blue Ribbon School. At Tuesday’s school board meeting, it was announced that Altamont Elementary was named a 2014-15 Reward School, which came with a $75,000 grant that the district will use for professional development and resources. Brabant said the designation was for having “a relatively small achievement gap” between the overall student population and economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities.

Gaughan said yesterday, “This is a school integrally connected to a neighborhood...We have a long history of supporting education, all the way back to the Civil War.”

When Altamont High School was torn down, as the district centralized and built a regional high school in Guilderland Center, the nearby property where the elementary school now stands was donated to the school district by the Sand family,” said Gaughan. “This is a treasured resource,” he said of the school.

Finally, drawing on his decades-long career with the State Education Department — one of his tasks was running resource reviews for schools in need of assistance — Gaughan said, “Small schools work best.”

The mayor said he would take up the matter with the village trustees. “We need to speak loudly and thoughtfully,” he said. “I don’t want to see it dispensed without just cause.”

Noting that real-estate agents had called him to say property values would decline if the school closes, Gaughan concluded, “I’m hoping we’ll bring attention to educational theory and economic reality....I will work with the superintendent who I really respect.”

Concerns raised

Some people questioned the report’s data, on which the recommendations were based. At the afternoon session, Melissa Gergen, the librarian at Guilderland High School, noted that Seversky said each of the district’s schools had its own librarian, while Gergen pointed out the actual number was 4.6. She also said that the librarians do more than instruct, fulfilling such duties as keeping up facilities, maintaining and circulating books.

Seversky said those were clerical duties that needn’t be handled by a certified professional.

At both sessions, audience members pointed out that the district had closed two schools in the 1970s after the Baby Boom generation had passed through. Fort Hunter Elementary on Carman Road was sold and ultimately torn down. Guilderland Elementary, on Western Avenue, was leased. When the Echo Boom generation came of age and suburban population increased, Guilderland Elementary was re-opened for district use, and a new school, Pine Bush Elementary, was built on Carman Road.

“I think history is repeating itself,” said Dawn Wier, during the afternoon session, maintaining the expense to rebuild would be greater in the long run.

“What’s your data?” responded Seversky.

Cody Ingraham, a high school senior who described himself as “an aspiring history major,” pointed out during the evening session current parallels with “dismal” economic times in the 1970s and asked if some wisdom couldn’t be gained from looking at the earlier closures.

“No, that was a different time, 45 years ago,” responded Seversky.

He maintained that culture has changed, with just one in four Guilderland households currently having a resident age 18 or younger whereas, before, that number would have probably been three out of five.

The only applause heard at either session came after Deb Ronan McKee spoke at the high school session. She said she had attended Altamont Elementary School and moved to Altamont so that her children could go there.

“How do you measure the intangibles?” she asked, mentioning how the Altamont schoolchildren sing to the senior citizens at their luncheons or sell lemonade in the park to raise money to fight childhood cancer.

She described how she had gained her independence and walked to school as a child and her children had done the same.

“How do you measure that?” McKee asked as applause rippled across the meeting hall.

Data driven

In an upbeat fashion, Seversky, at both sessions, went over his 76-page report, replete with charts and graphs, practically page by page.

Several school board members on Tuesday commented on the length of Severky’s presentations that pushed questions to the end after some in the audience had left. Catherine Barber called the hour-and-three-quarters evening presentation “rather lengthy,” and O’Connell surmised most in the audience had read the report, stating, “To have it read back to us...I thought it was inappropriate.”

In both sessions, Seversky pointed out that Guilderland has a longstanding tradition of renting out unused classrooms to the Board Of Cooperative Educational Services for special-education classes, which brings in about half-a-million dollars in revenues annually and keeps the five elementary schools open.

“You’re renting about 400 pupil capacity units,” he said at the afternoon session. “If you weren’t renting, you could serve another 400 children…The district could have closed a school 10 years ago if you weren’t renting to BOCES.” But, he said of continuing the practice, “It respects your culture; it respects your history,”

Similarly, at the evening session, he agreed with an onlooker’s assessment that, if the BOCES rentals were stopped, two schools, rather than one, could be closed.

“You said it; I didn’t,” commented Seversky.

Seversky presented charts, showing percentage of use for each of the district’s seven school buildings. He recommends a leeway of 5 to 10 percent, so that optimum use would be 90 to 95 percent.

Seversky reports that pupil capacity at the elementary schools is under-utilized by about 14 percent; the middle school is under-utilized by about 25 percent, and the high school is under-utilized by about 25 percent. Enrollment from 2008 has decreased from 5,323 to 4,925 districtwide this year.

“The real issue in the near future is the middle school,” he said. Seversky also called Farnsworth the district’s “greatest asset,” since it was constructed as several schools within a school and could be adapted to house students now served by the elementary schools.

In making his calculations, Seversky noted the maximum class sizes set out in the teachers’ contract — 30 at each grade level — but he considered the district’s current practice as “sacrosanct”: 23 pupils for kindergarten, first, and second grades; 25 for third, fourth, and fifth grade; 26 for sixth, seventh, and eighth grades; and 27 at the high school.

Seversky stressed that there is an “equity gap,” noting, for example, that Altamont averages 15.5 students in a kindergarten class while Lynnwood averages 23.5 — a 34-percent difference.

“Is that something you want to continue to live with?” he asked, adding, “It’s your kids, your community, your money.”

Seversky also said the district’s professional staff was not as “efficiently deployed” as it might be. He referred to a chart, listing for each elementary school and each grade, its minimum to maximum range of average “efficient deployment.” For example, efficiency deployment at Altamont’s kindergarten ranges from 67 to 86 percent while, at the other end of the spectrum, it ranges from 102 to 131 percent at Lynnwood.

Seversky suggested an “alternate method of delivering instruction” where classes include children of different ages is “not just efficient deployment but a new opportunity to serve students with different learning styles.”

Seversky then turned to enrollment projections, noting the district’s total enrollment in the five years since 2008-09 has decreased from 5,323 to 4,925 — a 7.5 percent change. He went over a series of charts, illustrating a declining birth rate in the Guilderland School District.

He based his predictions, in part, on interviews with area businesses and planning boards. His most optimistic estimate for kindergarten enrollment over the next five years was that it would remain stable; the most conservative estimate was a decline of 165 pupils.

Similarly, he made an eight-year projection for middle school with a likely decrease of up to 100 students and an optimistic estimate of a decline of 40.

In a 10-year projection for high school students, he calculated the decline is likely to be 210 pupils, with an optimistic estimate of 180 fewer.

Seversky, when questioned, repeatedly asserted that projections beyond those years are unreliable.

Looking at enrollment in the five elementary school catchment areas, Seversky noted Altamont was stable, Guilderland showed the only growth, and all the rest declined.

He also went over, in detail, bus-run costs and distances for various schools.

Seversky also calculated the average annual cost for certified instructional staff — $93,698 for elementary; $94,966 for middle and high school; and $151,235 for certified building level administrative staff.

Seversky went over proposals for saving money by restructuring current practices. For example, he included a chart on how to reshape the elementary school day into an A, B, C, D format, like the middle and high schools do, rather than a five-day Monday through Friday format currently in use.  He made a chart, for instance, to show how librarians could be re-deployed.

Another proposal was that changing to a cycle at the elementary school that used multiples of 2 and 4, physical education and other special classes, like music and art, could be scheduled more efficiently. One example he gave would yield 4,500 minutes for physical education during the school year, as required by the state — a requirement currently not met at Guilderland.

“Look at how you organize time,” urged Seversky, suggesting the district could be run more efficiently, providing more for students with existing staff, if all seven buildings were on the same day cycle, or on cycles that are multiples of each other.

Seversky also went over numbers showing the amount of “contact time” staff has with students. Ninety percent of a teacher’s day at the elementary schools is in contact with students, followed by 87 percent at the middle school, which Seversky termed “pretty good.”

The high school, at 77 percent, he called “a little low” and recommended, “You might want to explore ways to increase contact time.”

Six scenarios

“Doing nothing is an option,” said Seversky, introducing Scenario A, which continues the current configuration and the same costs.

He went on, “Here’s an outsider’s perspective of major challenges and major opportunities.”

Scenario B would keep the middle and high schools as they are, and close Altamont, busing the village students to other schools. The savings is estimated at $1.2 to $1.5 million.

Severksy stated that Altamont has the smallest building and the fewest students and, geographically, is the most outlying building.

“There’s no new housing, nothing going on up there,” Seversky said in the afternoon session of the unlikely increase in enrollment for Altamont.

“I would put it differently other than ‘nothing going on up there,’” responded Brabant.

Scenario C also closes Altamont Elementary while shifting the fifth grades from the four remaining schools to Farnsworth Middle School for an estimated savings of $1.3 to $1.7 million.

Within this model, Seversky suggested dividing the grades into fifth and sixth as one unit, and, separately, seventh and eighth grades. He noted the state doesn’t recognize middle school as a certification for teachers so those with elementary certification can teach only sixth-graders and can’t be used in the higher grades, where secondary school certification is required.

His model, said Seversky “ends the certification issue.”

He also said, “the pedagogy is whatever you want it to be.” He noted of the two groups, “They could never see each other.”

Scenario D closes Lynnwwod rather than Altamont while shifting the fifth grades to Farnsworth for a savings estimated between $1.4 and $1.8 million.

Seversky noted that Lynnwood is just two miles from Pine Bush Elementary, which is a much newer school. Both schools have had decreasing enrollment in the last six years, and Pine Bush is larger than Lynnwood.

Scenario E uses the Princeton plan, developed in Princeton, N.J. over a half-century ago, which keeps the neighborhood school model but groups children according to grades. Altamont would close, and the high school and middle school would stay as they are now.  Students in kindergarten, first, and second grades would attend either Lynnwood or Westmere while students in third, fourth, and fifth grades would attend Guilderland or Pine Bush. Seversky estimated the savings at $1.6 million to $2 million.

“The Princeton model is one of the most efficient ways to serve children and...enhance quality of instruction,” said Seversky.

“You would have two early-childhood education centers,” he said, noting that “the best and the brightest” of teachers who prefer the youngest grades could be recruited for those centers.

Scenario F also uses the Princeton plan but houses fifth-graders at the middle school, keeping the high school as it is now. Altamont Elementary, again, would close, while kindergartners, first and second grades would be housed at Guilderland or Pine Bush and third and fourth grades would be housed at Lynnwood or Westmere, for an estimated savings between $1.6 million and $2 million.

Seversky said he left Altamont out of the equation for the Princeton plan because of its distance away from the other schools. The plan keeps the neighborhood school model in place so that, for example, under Scenario E, a student starting kindergarten at Lynnwood would still be roughly in the same neighborhood when she graduated from the early childhood learning center and went on to Pine Bush Elementary for third through fifth grades.

“The study is a road map that doesn’t tell you what road to take,” said Seversky, wrapping up the afternoon session. “Frankly, you can make your own roads. It’s often emotional which it should be.”

Towards the end of the evening session, when a resident in the gallery asked why Farnsworth Middle School was expanded eight years ago, Seversky said, “I didn’t do those projections…You should have called me.”

Wiles interceded, “That question is why we did the study. I didn’t want to lead our district down a path that would have to be undone. We hired Paul because he’s really good at getting the data, holding up the mirror to us…We may not like what we see…It may be we decide to spend $1.2 million because we want our kids to have a lemonade stand in the middle of Altamont.”

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