GCSD board severs Seversky's scenarios

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Pledging their allegiance to the flag as well as to Altamont Elementary School, supporters turned out in force at Tuesday’s Guilderland School Board meeting, wearing red shirts that proclaimed “It takes a village,” an African proverb popularized by Hillary Clinton in a 1996 book of the same name. After hearing their comments, the board, following a lengthy discussion, voted to set aside a consultant’s recommendation to close the school.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Wide-eyed is one way to watch a meeting; the red-haired boy at center was among several kids wearing red T-shirts in support of Altamont Elementary at Tuesday’s Guilderland School Board meeting. The boy in the foreground is with Eric Merrifield, far right, who said his son was thriving at Altamont Elementary but told a cautionary tale of the city he left two years ago, Seattle, which had closed schools based on false predictions.

GUILDERLAND — In its first discussion of a controversial consultant’s report on efficiently using building space, the school board on Tuesday night, in a split vote, decided to disregard his concluding recommendations.

Four out of five of the cost-saving scenarios proposed by Paul Seversky would close Altamont Elementary School. Tuesday’s board decision came after two months of strident protests from Altamont residents, including the village’s mayor.

The 7-to-2 vote came about one-and-three-quarter hours into Tuesday’s meeting before a gallery filled with a score of Altamont residents, a dozen of them, including several children, wearing red T-shirts declaring, “It takes a village”; the rest of the African proverb is “to raise a child.” The same message is posted on lawn signs scattered throughout Altamont.

After the board listened to eight speakers opposed to closing Altamont Elementary, Superintendent Marie Wiles described an upcoming informational meeting “to take a few steps back and re-frame the problem.” She reiterated that the district — with five elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school — has “excess capacity” as it faces declining enrollment and a fixed income in light of a state-set tax-levy cap and fixed aid.

In light of the board’s vote, Wiles yesterday spoke to Seversky about changing the topics of the focus groups he had planned to conduct on Sept. 29. Wiles said, when she told Seversky about the board’s decision, he responded with “five or 10 seconds of just silence.” She went on, “He understands it comes down to what our community and board want to do.”

The three fall meetings the district had scheduled on the capacity study are “still on the books,” said Wiles yesterday, although what will happen at the two later meetings has not been fleshed out.

The first meeting, on Sept. 29, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the large-group instruction room in the high school, will, as planned, be a brief district presentation of the study to provide “an opportunity to re-frame the problem — what we are trying to solve and how do we get there,” said Wiles.

Additionally, she said, “I heard last night a need to re-visit data in the study that people have questions about. We’ll do some clarifying.”

The Sept. 29 meeting will also provide residents an opportunity to have their questions answered.

The second meeting, on Nov. 1, was originally supposed to be the last phase of Seversky’s data-gathering, where, in a day-long session, he would listen to focus groups discuss in depth the six scenarios he had proposed. The board was to select applicants for the groups to reflect all areas of the district and a broad spectrum of interests. 

“The scenarios were to be a springboard to review issues like moving fifth-graders to the middle school, transportation, and using the Princeton model,” said Wiles of grouping elementary students in kindergarten through third grade in one school and students in the intermediate grades in another.

“We don’t have a springboard anymore,” Wiles said. “We need to regroup.”

Asked who would come up with the new topics for the focus groups, Wiles said, “That’s a really good question.  Paul is hoping to help us,” she said of Seversky, but it is ultimately “the board’s decision.”

“If we can’t come up with a substantive way to use that time, with meaty, meaningful topics, we may postpone,” she said.

A third meeting, on Nov. 6, was meant to be a community brainstorming session with details to be fleshed out by the board’s communications committee. “The goal is community engagement,” said Wiles, adding, “We shouldn’t have meetings just to have meetings.”

Asked if a community task force, such as those that had served in developing district building proposals, might be enlisted as part of the process, Wiles said she had originally envisioned that happening after the focus groups met, and after “the board gave us direction” on what to consider.

“That would be the time to create a community task force,” she said. “Right now, there are so many avenues to explore in depth, we can’t do them all. We need to narrow it down.” She added, “We’ve had great success with task forces around capital projects to provide perspective as we do the work.”

Asked about her views on the school board’s decision, Wiles said, “I agree, the way the scenarios landed, with four focused on Altamont, was making it impossible to talk about anything but keeping Altamont open. I totally understand that. If taking them all off the table,” she said of Seversky’s scenarios, “let’s us discuss the real problems, it was a good call.”

Wiles went on, with the recently announced “windfall” in the state coffers, if gap elimination adjustment funds were to be returned to the schools across New York, it may reduce the urgency. But, if Guilderland is facing another multi-million-dollar budget gap — after cutting 180 jobs in recent years— urgency will return.

Wiles concluded, “We need to restart the conversation to engage the community in meaningful ways...We’re all invested in saving Guilderland schools. How do we keep Guilderland schools, Guilderland schools with the same level of quality?”

Board deliberates

Wiles noted at Tuesday night’s meeting that when she arrived in Guilderland in 2011 there was “lots of discussion about closing a school,” primarily focused on Lynnwood Elementary. Because of the “long-simmering conversation,” a consultant was hired to gather data.

In June, Seversky presented a report that concluded with six scenarios — five of which involved closing an elementary school to save between $1.2 and $2 million annually; the sixth scenario was to keep the schools as they are with no savings.

Seversky reported 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 has decreased from 5,323 in 2008 to 4,925 district-wide this past school year.

Board member Gloria Towle-Hilt asked what is the answer to concerns raised by articles and letters she’d been reading in The Altamont Enterprise all summer.

“A lot of questions have been raised we haven’t done our homework on,” answered Wiles. She gave several examples: moving fifth-grade classes, now in the elementary schools, to the middle school; grouping elementary students in the Princeton model; and transportation issues in closing or reconfiguring schools.

Board member Catherine Barber then quoted from Seversky’s report: “The local perspective is the only perspective that is important in the final balance of determining what is ‘educationally sound’ and ‘cost-effective’ for Guilderland.”

Barber suggested setting aside Seversky’s conclusions “so we can have another conversation that’s not simply about closing a school.”

She went on about Seversky, “He doesn’t know anything about our community at all. We’re the people…who know about our community.”

“I was surprised those options were there,” agreed Towle-Hilt. “I had assumed we hired him to gather data…not to tell us what to do with it. That’s our decision…No decision in life is based just on data.”

“It was in his original proposal,” said Wiles. “Ironically, we have probably 250 pages…and everyone looks at the last six pages.”

She concluded, looking at the board members, “In the end, this is up to you folks.”

“People are speaking and we are listening,” said board member Judy Slack.

Board member Colleen O’Connell noted that the Bethlehem School Board hastily closed the Clarksville Elementary School against the superintendent’s recommendation. “It was very upsetting to the community. There was no process…We are trying to be thoughtful,” she said.

“Can the meetings be productive with those choices out there?” asked board member Christopher McManus.

“With those choices there…it’s limiting,” said Towle-Hilt; she recommended making a much longer list of choices or putting the current list aside.

O’Connell said that the planned Nov. 6 meeting was “to look beyond the list.”

Barber countered that it would not be productive to continue down the same path. “Having the same conversation over and over; it’s being reinforced,” she said.

Board member Jennifer Charron said there were some “great ideas” no one was willing to talk about “because this great big elephant in the room is saving Altamont.”

Board Vice President Allan Simpson said that, when he first came on the board, there were concerns about declining enrollment and shrinking revenue. “The idea of hiring the consultant was to gather independent data,” said Simpson, adding he was disturbed that the end points could have been “preconceived.”

What’s important, he said, is what is best “for the kids.” Referring to his younger child, he said, because of budget cuts, “My daughter isn’t getting the same education my son got.” Good schooling is “the stepping stone for success,” said Simpson, concluding, “It’s really bigger than Altamont.”

Board member Christine Hayes said it is difficult to have productive conversations when so many are looking at just the concluding six scenarios; she said setting those aside is a good idea.

Hayes also noted she had heard several comments questioning the accuracy of Seversky’s data and asked, “Is there some way to verify?”

“The data is only one part of the decision,” said Simpson. “The other part is what the community thinks.”

“The initial problem is, where are we going to get the money?...It’s not going to come out of the sky,” said Towle-Hilt.

“I’m willing to say I’m open to any options,” said O’Connell. “I’m not willing to throw the report out…If the transportation numbers come back as some are suggesting,” she said, referring to expenses and hardship that outweigh savings, “that’s another kettle of fish.”

Looking to the crowd from Altamont, O’Connell said, “You guys are engaged because your school is at risk…We need to hear from other catchments.”

“I would not say jettison the entire report,” said Barber. “I would say set aside the scenarios….”

Board President Barbara Fraterrigo said that she, too, was “troubled with the limited scenarios given” and suggested having Seversky lead a focus group on other scenarios.

“I can tell him people are uncomfortable with a day focusing on six options,” said Wiles. She said she’d ask Seversky, “What can you do to focus on broader issues?”

She noted, “He works for us,” and said she could ask him “to modify his program to fit our needs.”

“I don’t think Dr. Seversky should control the process,” said Barber to applause from the crowd in the gallery.

She made a motion to continue to look at the report without the scenarios, to “re-start the conversation where we want to go.”

Fraterrigo noted that wouldn’t prohibit closing schools but would broaden the discussion.

Since the board has a rule to vote on issues only at the meeting following their introduction, the board had to vote to suspend that rule before voting on Barber’s motion. Both motions were opposed by O’Connell and Slack, with the majority — Barber, Charron, Fraterrigo, Hayes, McManus, Simpson, and Towle-Hilt — voting in favor.

What’s next?

“The discussion has to consider many different options and educational soundness…but not in the context of closing a particular school,” said Barber.

“It’s still important to have a broad spectrum of the community,” said Fraterrigo.

The focus groups were to be selected from all five elementary school catchment areas and from a range of stakeholders — not just parents and teachers but members of households without children, business owners, and members of community organizations. The board had postponed the first date scheduled for the focus groups because applicants were largely from Altamont rather than other places in the district.

Barber said, when other topics are broached, like moving fifth grade to the middle school or adopting the Princeton model,  “Everyone in the community would want to be involved.”

“We’re all in this together,” said Fraterrigo. “I just want to caution everybody that, at some point…the day may come when some school in this district has to close.”

“It can be any one of the schools,” said Simpson. “We should analyze what is the best decision for the whole community.”

“It’s a blank slate,” said Towle-Hilt.

“That’s very well put,” said Barber.

So, addressing the focus-group meeting that had been scheduled for Sept. 29, Wiles asked, “What’s our next step?

Towle-Hilt said it is crucial to understand what assumptions Seversky made to decide how valid the data is.

“If people have issues with the report, that’s important, too,” said McManus.

Wiles said she thought an important piece of the structure was to involve all of the stakeholders. She asked what the focus-group session should center on if not Seversky’s scenarios.

“If people come having read the study, they’d create ideas,” said Towle-Hilt.

McManus suggested the board could come up with options for the focus groups to discuss.

“There are silent people out there because they haven’t felt a threat,” said Towle-Hilt, stressing the importance of having a cross-section of the district comment.

Hayes said it was difficult to have a focus group “without real drivers.” She suggested pushing it back until after the brainstorming session.

AES boosters

Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy was the first to address the board at the start of Tuesday’s meeting. He called Altamont Elementary “a unique school,” and said of the villagers, “They really feel a sense of community.”

McCoy said he knew firsthand how tough it is to balance a budget and cautioned the board against ignoring increased transportation costs with a school closing, stating, “If you do it wrong, Schenectady went bankrupt.”

He concluded, “I do want to applaud the citizens of Altamont and the board…Hopefully, you can keep all three schools open.”

Josh Kowalski, one of two-dozen letter writers published in The Enterprise, wore a red T-shirt as he spoke to the board.

“It seemed by hiring Dr. Seversky, it was a predetermined outcome,” he said of the recommendations for closure.

He told Wiles he had read her letter in The Enterprise and concluded of the focus groups, “It doesn’t seem like an open forum for cost savings.”

Michael Hill, the father of two Altamont Elementary graduates, then spoke at length, praising the school district, board, and superintendent, and raising serious questions about Seversky’s methods and calculations.

“What community is this guy writing about?” he asked, countering Seversky’s statements that Guilderland is rural, has not grown, and its property values have declined.

Hill said some on the board might see the problem as sentiment versus numbers but concluded, “It’s not just sentiment.”

Hill handed board members sheets with charts from Seversky’s report and with information he himself had obtained from the town of Guilderland on housing developments.

“He’s totaling out four years of development over eight years,” said Hill. “He’s frontloading.” He suggested the board look at how Seversky similarly did reports for other districts.

Seversky’s report, Hill concluded, “is an engine of ill will…The focus groups will rev that engine.”

Bridget Scally, a passionate parent, spoke next, also wearing a red shirt.

She and her husband moved to the village seven years ago and their first child will attend Altamont Elementary in the fall. The fact that the community has galvanized around its school, she said, “should be celebrated and not feared.”

She passed out copies of all the letters to the editor and articles that had been published on the issue in The Altamont Enterprise. She urged the board to read them, saying, “Hold up a mirror to Dr. Seversky” — a play on Seversky’s phrase that he holds up a mirror to the community.

“Googling him raised serious concerns…Dr. Seversky makes his living out of closing schools, elementary schools,” Scally said.

She also said, “I refuse to be part of a focus group that would lend credence to Dr. Seversky.”

Scally gave the board this advice: “You have an opportunity to distance yourself from a report not worth the paper it’s printed on.”

Kerry Dineen — a current Guilderland teacher and Altamont trustee as well as an alumna — urged the board, “Take the idea of closing Altamont Elementary School off the table.”

She said, “Although we can create community within our schools” it is hard for students to interact with friends “really far away.”

Dineen said that, while other schools create communities within their walls, Altamont has a school community that encompasses the village. “We have three schools within two miles of each other,” said Dineen. “That’s where conversation should start.”

She urged the board to take a straw vote to see if five members were willing to take the closure of Altamont Elementary off the table.

Noting the harm to real-estate values and sales in the village, Dineen concluded, “It’s not good for the village. It’s not good for the town. It’s not good for the district.”

April Alex, who moved to Altamont from the Schalmont district, said she had personal knowledge of Seversky and his methods from the closure of the school in Mariaville.

When the school in Mariaville, where she had grown up, was slated to close, the community rallied. “We saved our school. Schalmont built a brand-new school,” Alex said. The school was two miles from her home and she said she was emotionally attached to it.

Then, she said, after Seversky was consulted, the school was closed. “A brand new building sits empty, completely empty,” said Alex. Her kindergartner then had to endure a long ride to school she said, also making her involvement in the parents’ organization more difficult.

Alex said of Seversky’s process, “We were herded as cattle…Most of our concerns were being pacified.” She called the focus group “an insult to intelligence.”

Her family moved to Altamont. “I literally fell in love with the school,” she said, adding, “The reality is, people move for the elementary school, from the time you have a child in your stomach.”

Although her child, now in third grade, will have graduated from Altamont Elementary by the time the school would be closed, Alex said, “I can’t turn a blind eye…If we could learn from their mistakes,” she said of the Schalmont board members, “I would say losing that school for my children would be worth it.”

James Gaughan, Altamont’s mayor for nine years, praised the board for listening but said, “Here’s a piece of advice…To wait and listen for two months and not respond is a communication mistake.”

He said he assumed studies were underway and urged the board give “some feedback.”

“Listening is one part of a dialogue,” said the mayor, concluding, “As some of you probably read in The Altamont Enterprise, democracy is a little messy.”

Eric Merrifield was the last to speak before the board discussion. He said his family had moved to Altamont from Seattle, Washington two years ago, and told a cautionary tale of school closings in Seattle.

Reading Seversky’s report “brought back bad memories” for him, said Merrifield. “Seattle looked at capacity…for closure to save money and closed eight to 10 schools,” he said.

It was appropriate to close some of the schools since they were run down and unsafe, but many good schools where students performed well were also closed, he said.

What Seattle discovered, two years after the closings, he said, was the population trends on which the decisions were based were wrong. “This was not a new story,” said Merrifield. “Statistics require… a lot of assumptions.”

The predictions, he said, had over-estimated the benefits and under-estimated the costs — costs for added transportation, heating vacant buildings, and security to prevent vandalism, among others.

Merrifield concluded that Altamont Elementary School had a remarkable community of teachers, parents, and a principal. “Our son is thriving there,” he said. “All of those intangibles are lost in a report like this…but they all have value.”

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