According to Superintendent Gerard Gretzinger, he advised the Board of Education to clear up the elementary school issue first as whatever direction the district decides to go could impact the plans for the high school campus.
“We kind of keep jumping back and forth,” said Gretzinger. “If we were to close an elementary and use it as an alternative school, that may change the plans for the high school.”
In the latest possible scenario, the district could close an elementary school but still hang on to the building for district use, with one option turning it into a combined alternative high school and administrative hub. Gretzinger said the district’s offices could move out of its current headquarters at the Cioni Building on Crown Street.
“You’ve got to understand that if we’re talking about repurposing schools, we’re not saving anything,” Gretzinger said. “Probably the only way we’re going to save any money if you close and repurpose is if you do something with the Cioni Building. There’s been a lot of discussion in the Master Plan Facilities Committee meetings that the administration could move out and into the schools.”
Gretzinger said the committee has made it clear they’re concerned that closing a school would lead the building to become disused, like the former Tillson Elementary School. Gretzinger said moving out of the Cioni Building could waylay that fear.
“The Cioni Building would go up for sale,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re going to get any money out of this. In no way do we want to close a school and have it just sit and none of the schools are going to sell. But being Uptown, a developer might want to buy (Cioni) and do something else with it.”
Gretzinger added that the annual savings to the district by closing an elementary school might be somewhere in the $680,000 range, though he cautioned that the figure was not precise.
“The Master Plan Facilities Committee asked if we could give kind of a generic figure,” Gretzinger said. “It’s going to be different based on the school.”
While some staff would move to other schools in the district in this scenario, Gretzinger said the reductions could include a principal, an office manager, some teachers, a head custodian, maintenance and cafeteria workers and other support staff.
While the facilities committee supports the possibility of closing an elementary school, an option that would reorganize the district’s remaining elementary schools into K-2 and 3-5 facilities was not a popular concept. Instead, the group discussed possible parameters to determine which school would be closed, including the total savings to the district, the building capacity and its potential to be converted into a central alternative high school or administrative offices and what the closing would do as far as increased class sizes elsewhere and longer commutes for students. School officials made it clear that they haven’t made any decisions about any specific buildings yet, though a decision is still anticipated sooner rather than later.
“I anticipate that will probably happen within the next few months and a decision will be made,” Gretzinger said. “However, I don’t think that will be implemented until September 2012.”
Among the many things that will have to be settled should the district go ahead with the option of closing an elementary school is what to do with all the students, with the possibility that not only would students in the closed school be moved to new buildings, but that other students might also have to be moved to accommodate them.
“It will entail the use of the transportation department and the superintendent’s office in deciding where to draw the lines, basically,” said school board member Chris Farrell, who also serves as the chairman of the facilities committee. “I think we should do this in conjunction with a greater look at the entire district. Redistricting is necessary. It’s a dirty word that nobody likes to hear, but when we decide what school needs to be closed, we should also decide how we need to realign the attendance zones across the district.”
Closing an elementary school and turning the building into an alternative education center that would serve grades 7-12 and would fulfill school officials’ hopes that a pilot middle school program that earlier this year expanded into the freshman class could further expand to the senior class. Such an option would change the current high school renovation plans.
“The Master Plan Facilities Committee has discussed using an elementary school that was closed as an alternative high school site, but at the board meeting last Wednesday in discussing the plan for the high school it was brought up that perhaps the Whiston-Tobin building could be used as an alternative high school site,” said school board President James Shaughnessy. “We had also talked in recent weeks about the possibility of using the Tobin Building as central offices and tearing down Whiston.”
With the fate of the $88 million high school renovation plan unlikely to go before voters until fall 2011, the plans could still be altered to conform to whatever the district decides to do at the elementary school level. School board members said the decision to hold off on the former until the latter is settled made sense.
“It really makes more sense to design what we’re going to be doing before we move forward,” said Farrell. “What we do with the elementary schools may have some impact on the high school project. It makes more sense, and I’m assuming the facilities committee will see it that way, too.”
Though they have yet to settle on any one elementary school to be closed, school officials and members of the Board of Education seemed confident that the issue should be settled by February 2011, partly because of the likelihood of another difficult budget run on the horizon.
“It should certainly no later than February, because then we get into the budget prep cycle, and we don’t know what’s in store for us there,” said Shaughnessy. “We anticipate reduced funding, perhaps, from the state. There’s certainly not going to be an increase. Our budget again is going to be more demand than resources, and it’s probably going to be another cycle where we’ve had the last two years where we’ve had to eliminate positions.”
Should the closing of an elementary school be settled by February, school officials expect the news will be difficult for some to hear.
“I don’t think it’s going to be easy to swallow for parents of children who go to that school, but I think ultimately it’s going to be the best thing for the district to move forward,” said Farrell.
The decision may also be difficult for that school’s students, some of whom have, according to Gretzinger, sent letters to the district clerk’s office in packets asking that their schools not be closed down. The issue was brought up by Trustee Maureen Bowers at a recent meeting of the Board of Education, where, according to published reports, she said students shouldn’t be writing them.
“It seems that some of the teachers have been talking to the kids about it and asking them as a class to write letters to the board,” said Gretzinger. “Maureen did express her concern, and the Board and I share that concern that we don’t feel it’s appropriate during class time to write these letters.”
“I’m certain the children didn’t decide en masse to send letters,” Farrell said. “If it’s the teachers, I think it’s inappropriate for them at this time to have children put together these letters, and I think ultimately it’s not appropriate or parents to use their children that way either. It’s not appropriate to alarm kids over something that may never happen. It’s creating anxiety where it’s not necessary. Let children be children.”
Shaughnessy said he believed the closing of a school might be more difficult for adults to handle than children.
“Children are resilient, so if there’s a school closed and the children are moved to another building, they’re going to be OK,” he said. “It’s more difficult for adults to adjust. Children go through many changes in their early life.”
But while school officials questioned whether it was appropriate for adults to ask students to send letters about how they feel about the possibility of school closure, former member of the city’s common council Richard Cahill, Jr. recently quoted an editorial in the Times Herald-Record that criticized the district in his blog. The editorial, entitled “Don’t tell students they do not matter,” compared Gretzinger’s decision to ask teachers to stop students from writing letters during school time to “censorship” and “ignorance.”
In introducing the editorial in his blog, “Cahill on Kingston,” Cahill wrote, “See if it makes your blood boil. It sure made me angry. The School Board has no problem using the children to spread its propaganda. Heaven forbid the children be given a say.”
Gretzinger said the district has taken great care to ensure the public, including parents and students, have an opportunity to have their voices heard on the matter of closing an elementary school.
“The board members and myself are going to schools and PTA meetings,” he said. “We’re just asking that the teachers do not get the kids to write the individual letters. We understand that no kid wants their school to be closed. We know what the message is and we respect the message.”
Shaughnessy said the complex issue of closing an elementary school wasn’t one that should be discussed emotionally.
“It doesn’t add anything to the decision-making process,” Shaughnessy said of the letters received by the district clerk’s office. “I don’t think we’re going to get insights from elementary school students on a decision like this.”