Thursday, March 22, 2012

Support Oneonta Schools - Report on March 21 Workshop



By Sallie Han

The decision to close an elementary school and consolidate K-6 into three buildings starting this September is being made too quickly and without enough information about the consequences for the community and the local economy or enough involvement from the public. That is the message the Board of Education received last night at a workshop on the Oneonta city schools budget held at Center Street School.

About 80 parents and concerned community members participated in the special session, which was announced in response to concerns raised during district superintendent Mike Shea’s budget presentation on Wednesday, March 14, when he formally introduced school closure and consolidation as part of the district’s plan to bridge a $1.4 million “gap” in the district’s budget that has resulted from reductions in New York State aid to public schools. School board president Grace Larkin had invited community members to present their ideas to the district.

Shea, district business manager Lisa Weeks, and all of the board members attended last night’s workshop. During the special session, parents who have been involved in Support Oneonta Schools – a grassroots effort to inform and involve community members on the budgetary concerns facing the district – presented a number of alternative scenarios.

Jeff House, one of the parents who presented, emphasized that the scenarios were devised with the goals of both bridging the$1.4 million gap and keeping Center Street School open for 2012-2013 so that the school board could gather more data on the impacts that a closure and consolidation would have, especially in terms of community development.

He said that closing Center Street School will be an “irreversible” decision. Because it is an older building, it would not meet current standards, so if K-6 is removed from the building this coming year, then it will not be possible to use it as a school again.

House raised questions about what happens as other smaller districts, also facing budgetary problems, might be forced to consolidate with a larger neighboring district like Oneonta, which then will need additional classrooms to accommodate the inflow of students. However, concerns about flood zones in the city of Oneonta raise questions about whether or not it would be possible to build an addition onto Riverside School.

Karl Seeley, a parent and an economist at Hartwick College, said that closing the school itself will generate far less in savings than the district hopes to achieve – only $245,000. He said most of the savings come from consolidating students into larger class sizes and allowing the district to lay off teachers and staff. (See graphic above, provided by Dr. Seeley.)

Carli Ficano, also an economist at Hartwick, called for a formal study that considers a range of impacts, including a comparison of cost savings from school closure with possible property value reductions, not only within the Center City neighborhood, but also in the larger city and town of Oneonta because the public school system is a critical factor in real estate.

Ficano said that it is necessary for long range planning to undertake such a study to make a prudent decision about school closure and consolidation.

The issue of the tax levy received particular attention from community and school board members. Board member Rosalie Higgins expressed her concern that a levy above New York State’s “cap” at 1.8 percent will not be approved. Voters can approve a levy above 1.8 percent with a 60% super-majority. However, Mark Parmerter, a parent and Center Street teacher, called attention to the high rates of voter approval on school budgets. In 2011, a 2.89% increase in the levy passed with 74% “yes” votes.

The alternative scenarios that House and Parmerter presented to board members relied on a combination of modest increases in the levy; drawing from the district’s fund balance, or money not spent this year, which is projected to be $1.2 million; and the “sharing” of resources and staff between schools in order to minimize layoffs.

House and Parmerter noted that none of the scenarios is endorsed by parents or community members in Support Oneonta Schools, and were being presented as examples of short-term solutions that could be pursued for 2012-2013 while formal study and long-term planning could be undertaken for the following year.

All of the community members who spoke during the meeting urged further public discussion and engagement.

At the end of the meeting, board members said they would give serious consideration to the suggestions made during the workshop.

***

Here are some of the alternative scenarios that were presented at the school board’s workshop on Wednesday, March 21 in order to offset the $875,000 in savings that the district hopes to generate with a school closure and consolidation:

5% tax levy increase
Use $400,000 from fund balance
RESULT: no need for Center St School closure or extensive teacher/staff cuts; formation of committee to develop 5-year plan for district fiscal management despite declining state aid

2.85% tax levy increase (less than 2010 increase of 2.89%, which passed by 72%)
Use 600,000 from fund balance
RESULT: no need for Center St School closure or extensive teacher/staff cuts; formation of committee to develop 5-year plan for district fiscal management despite declining state aid

2.85% tax levy increase (less than 2010 increase of 2.89%, which passed by 72%)
Use $300,000 from fund balance
* In the event the BOE allows Center St School to remain open, one strategy for cost savings & enrollment equity throughout the four elementary buildings is to revisit the ‘redistricting’ models that helped with similar issues in the 1980’s.
RESULT: no need for Center St School closure; \if ‘redistricting’ models implemented, shared services would be required & amount of teacher/staff cuts could be reduced from $875,000 to $400,000

3 comments:

  1. As an aside, you might be wondering why academics were not discussed much last night, which board member Darren Gaisford also noted during his comments. I think it is important to keep in mind the context and purpose of the workshop. The superintendent and the board have discussed the closure of a school and consolidation of elementary schools as not their wish, but the only solution that they see to a "numbers" problem. As a result, I think it is appropriate that the parents who presented last night answered with other numbers-based solution.

    Other board members like Bill Grau also raised their concerns about high school graduation rates and preparation for job and college. Also, the subcommittee on academics/instructions and extracurricular activities that was part of the board's space utilization study last year found: "There is a need to develop a district-wide approach for the education of its children."

    Clearly, a district-wide discussion on academics is important and necessary - and it is important and necessary to understand the implications of elementary school consolidation as part of a district-wide approach. In short, academics deserves much more attention than the board or the community can give it between now and May 15th, when the school budget goes to a vote.

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  2. P.S. The board itself formalizes the budget in April.

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  3. Thank you for the report. I was not able to attend, but appreciate being kept informed.

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