What makes Dr. Seversky’s template cut-and-paste report the only viable answer?

To the Editor:

I am writing to express the concerns my husband, David Werling, and I have with the conclusions reached in a report written by consultant Dr. Paul M. Seversky to answer whether there were “any options that might provide [Guilderland schools] more cost-effective ways or patterns to organize how the K-12 program is implemented.”  Our specific concerns are over the way in which the report was written, its methodology, and the factors that the report failed to consider. 

After I read and digested Dr. Seversky’s report, I wanted to know more about him to understand his point of view.  A quick google search informed me that Dr. Seversky is an experienced educator and consultant, who has done very similar analyses for school districts across the state.

As I looked at his previous reports prepared for other districts, I noted a strong similarity in the content.  In some cases, Dr. Seversky’s other reports contain almost identical sections to the ones contained in the Guilderland report.

For example, the preface that appears in Guilderland’s report was a literal copy and paste of the preface of past reports (at least three that I came across), including one prepared for the Camden School District in 2012.  In this reused preface, Dr. Seversky describes the bleak forecast of the economic climate of rural upstate New York.   Camden happens to be a “rural” town in rural Oneida county, with a 2010 census population of 4,934, as compared to Guilderland’s census data of 35,303, making Guilderland seven times larger than Camden. 

The fact that Dr. Seversky copied from a report prepared for a rural district now makes sense to me, because, as I read the preface, I was truly confused by the dire economic picture he was painting.  I knew Albany was in a much different position than other “rural” counties across the state of New York.

In fact, just a few years ago, President Barack Obama visited Albany to laud the region’s economic growth, and to make the statement that he “want[s] what's happening in Albany to happen across the country," alluding to our local economic growth and development.  The school he visited to deliver this speech is located within the Guilderland School District.  Surely, the town of Guilderland, a town that shares borders with Albany, a town that the president of the United States of America visited to highlight the nation’s growth potential, cannot be lumped in with upstate “rural” counties.

Growth statistics issued in June 2014 and available online by the New York State Department of Labor further illustrate that Albany is set apart from rural upstate New York when it comes to job growth.   

While I appreciate a consultant reusing portions of a template report when conducting similar consultant work at different locations, I am disturbed by the copy-and-paste for Guilderland’s purposes, because it indicates that Dr. Seversky did not tailor his report to, nor consider, Guilderland’s specific conditions, and the individuality of our community.  He did not customize the report to our community and its growth potential, despite his slogan, which appears on every page of the report, “Custom tools and research to aid a school district in defining a vision and decision options for serving its students in the future.”   The reuse of the preface, and his repeated methodology, illustrates that his report is nothing close to “custom.” 

Dr. Seversky’s methodology was one-dimensional — a term I find fitting since it was a basic numbers analysis.  The only factors Dr. Seversky considered were building space and the numbers of students enrolled.

If Dr. Seversky believes pupils and space are all that a school should be measured by, then he is missing some of the most important components of education.   Despite Dr. Seversky’s slogan, and despite his emphasis on community as an important component to a school, there was no mention of the district’s “vision,” or “serving” students, or any analysis of community whatsoever in his conclusions. 

In defense of his focus on closing Altamont in the scenarios presented, Dr. Seversky stated “There’s no new housing [in Altamont], nothing going on up there [in Altamont].”  I wholly disagree with this speculative characterization of Altamont’s growth.

There is currently a 10-lot subdivision being built on Bozenkill Road, and another 60-lot subdivision currently under construction by the high school.  This growth can hardly be characterized as “nothing.”  Not to mention, Altamont has the most untapped growth potential given its open land and desirability of its school. 

What concerns me the most is that the opinion and analysis of one man who was charged with, and paid for, assessing the district will be accepted as the only solution(s) to the districts fiscal woes.  What makes Dr. Seversky’s template cut-and-paste report the only viable answer?  At no time did the study contemplate options other than closing the school that, in his own words, has “nothing going on up there.” 

I implore the board to look at the issues and elements that were not analyzed by the study, such as community involvement and impact, property values, enrollment, and student impact.  I implore the board to not accept Dr. Seversky’s conclusions as the only solutions, just as other schools he has prepared reports for have opted to do.

Recently, at a town forum to discuss Dr. Seversky’s report, the kindergarten classes’ recent lemonade stand was repeatedly brought up as an example of the school’s integration with the community.  Superintendent, Dr. Wiles, responded to the lemonade stand comments with a sarcastic statement, “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.”

If Dr. Wiles thinks the community concerns are simply over a lemonade stand, or thinks that we are asking the district to spend $1.2 million for a lemonade stand, then I fear she misunderstands the issue.  The lemonade stand is one example, of hundreds, that we can offer to illustrate how Altamont Elementary is ingrained in the fabric of the Altamont community.

If Altamont Elementary were closed, the board would be not only shutting down a school, but it would be impacting the very community that derives its identity from the elementary school.   

What makes Altamont Elementary unique is that it is located in a walkable village, and the school capitalizes on its proximity by engaging with the community on a continual basis.

While at school, our children walk to the park, they walk to get ice cream, they make visits to the library, they sing to the elderly at the nearby community center, and they get the community engaged at various events throughout the year, including Alex’s Lemonade Stand fundraising effort, the annual Jelly Bean Field Day, and the walking school bus held each Tuesday in the warmer months — where you can find Altamont’s Principal, Peter Brabant, wearing a wooden cut-out of a yellow school bus and leading a trove of students and parents on a walk from the village center to the school.

These are the things that are hard to measure with metrics, but that does not mean they do not matter.

What we as a community are trying to say when we mention the lemonade stand, or any of the other examples of what makes Altamont so unique and truly special to its residents, is that Dr. Wiles and the board have to at least consider this special quality before they decide to close Altamont for good.

We are saying that the board should not simply rubber stamp Dr. Seversky’s report as the only viable solution to the district’s financial issues, because it fails to consider any other factors and options, or even the impact his presented options would have on the education of the students or the communities surrounding the schools. 

And, unlike the sweet lemonade served by our kindergartners at their lemonade stand, failing to account for these other educational and community concerns would surely result in a sour outcome for the entire district.

Nedra Abbruzzese-Werling

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