Can you cut your cake and have it too?

We’ve received a flurry of phone calls and e-mails last week and this after the Guilderland School District posted a capacity study on its website.  The study, put together by Dr. Paul Seversky, asks this question: Are there options that might provide more cost-effective ways or patterns to organize teaching students in kindergarten through 12th grade over the next three years?

First of all, we commend the district leaders — both elected school board members and administrators — for taking a long and in-depth look at using resources effectively.

The neighboring district of Bethlehem didn’t do so well when it closed its Clarksville school — the smallest of the suburban district’s then-six elementary schools. Clarksville was the only one in the town of New Scotland and the only one serving a rural community.

In January 2011, the Bethlehem School Board asked its superintendent to look into the feasibility of closing the Clarksville school; the following month, he presented the study to the board, which held two two-hour public hearings that March. Additions to the Clarksville school from a 2003 bond were still not paid for. The study calculated a $900,000 savings from closing the school in a year when Bethlehem faced a $1 million budget gap.

In a split decision that March — less than three months after broaching the idea — the school board voted to close the school, against the recommendation of the superintendent. Hundreds of Clarksville residents spoke out against the closing and many in the community are still bitter about it.

“This should be looked at in a more systemic way,” said the school board president at the time.

Guilderland is looking at its facility use in a systemic way.

“The most important thing,” Guilderland Superintendent Marie Wiles told us, “is this is the beginning of the process, not the end.”

Guilderland, like many school districts across the state, is faced with declining enrollment, stagnant property values on which taxes depend, reduced government aid, and increased costs. Consequently, the school board last year decided to hire a consultant to gather and analyze data. “We needed to do some homework to see how to best meet the needs of the students,” said Wiles.

Seversky, who had done a similar study for East Greenbush, was hired.  He visited Guilderland’s schools — five elementary schools, a high school, and a middle school — in September and met with staff. “We sent him reams of data,” said Wiles, including square footage of all parts of each building, field acreage, bus runs, and more.  “He likes to say he’s holding a mirror up to the community,” she said.

Seversky produced two preliminary studies — both posted on the district’s website: one on building capacity, benchmarked against State Education Department requirements, and the other on enrollment projections, looking at past trends and trying to project the future.

For instance, 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 document posted on June 10 to the district’s website is a synthesis of that data. Wiles says she is keeping a list of errors she plans to correct with an addendum.

Seversky outlines six “scenarios” for the district to consider. The first is to keep the schools configured as they are; four recommend closing Altamont Elementary, and one recommends closing Lynnwood Elementary. Variations come in which grades are taught where, although all of the options keep the high school as it is, for grades nine to 12. (See our front-page story for details.)

The study notes that Altamont is the smallest school with the lowest enrollment and, geographically, is the most outlying building. In an earlier section, the report notes that Altamont students come from the poorest families, with just over 20 percent receiving free and reduced-price lunches; Pine Bush Elementary has the fewest in that category, at 7.7 percent.

The rationale for closing Lynnwood is that it is located just two miles from Pine Bush Elementary, both have decreasing enrollments over the past six years, and Pine Bush can hold more students than Lynnwood.

Seversky has calculated the annual savings for each of the scenarios, which range from $1.2 million to $2 million; Guilderland has a $92 million budget for next year.

Our first reaction, similar to that of many of our callers, is to state the worth of a neighborhood school. More children walk to Altamont Elementary than any other; it is truly a part of the community. We took pictures this month of kindergartners selling lemonade to villagers in Altamont’s park, documenting a rich interaction between school and community.

Isn’t that worth a million dollars?

“A million or two million dollars can reduce the other cuts we may have to make,” responded Wiles. Next year’s budget cuts another 34 jobs, bringing to 180 the total number of jobs lost at Guilderland since the gap elimination adjustment reduced state aid.

So we’re going to keep an open mind in the weeks and months ahead. Seversky made two lengthy presentations of his report on Monday, June 16. Next, Wiles will field six focus groups with carefully balanced representation from the community; on a Saturday in September, each group will consider one of the six scenarios to “dig deep” as she put it.

“The consultant will compile all of those comments, thoughts, questions, and concerns and share them with the board,” said Wiles. “The board will wrestle with that data. I cannot begin to predict what they will do.”

Wiles does not think a conclusion will be reached in time for the following year’s budget talks. It is wise to wait and be thorough.

“This will be a topic of conversation throughout the entirety of next year,” said Wiles. “This is Guilderland. People are going to want to come and weigh in.”

As we’ve urged the callers we’ve heard from: Read the study; ask questions and get answers; write to us and make your views known on our letters pages. A community dialogue can be the best way to arrive at a community solution.

On Tuesday night, we witnessed the great pride of Lynnwood Elementary School as its principal, Alicia Rizzo, presented her school’s results to the board in the state-required report card. The school, which serves students with disabilities from across the district, overcame great challenges to make the required adequate yearly progress.

Lynnwood staff was on hand to applaud the accomplishment, casting a glow that goes beyond numbers. We thought then about the good that allegiance to a school can bring, and the sense of pride and care it can engender.

We remembered words the Altamont Elementary principal, Peter Brabant, spoke to us in the parking lot after Seversky’s presentation the day before.

“The worst scenario,” he said, “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....”

We plan to take that advice to heart and we hope our readers do, too.

We also talked to Altamont’s mayor, James Gaughan, who worked for decades as an educator and believes in the power of a small, community school.

“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,” he said.

Those last words, of course, come from the Apostle Paul in Corinthians who explains that, while we may now have a mirror that is an imperfect rendition of reality — we do not see clearly — at the end of time, we will.

While it would be absurd to compare Paul Seversky to the Apostle Paul and, while we certainly realize the outcome — whatever it is — for the Guilderland schools can’t compare to eternal verities, still, those words made us pause and think.

We, each of us, know a part of how the schools serve us. One of us may teach, another may be a taxpayer who counts on a stable property value, a third may be drive a bus, a fourth may have a child in the school, a fifth may go to an occasional concert or football game, and on and on and on.

But if we come face to face as a community and try, really try, to genuinely see what meets the most needs we will then perhaps see clearly. Let’s have faith in the process, hope for the outcome, and charity toward our neighbors whose ideas may differ from our own.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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