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In a GloFo district, a new high-tech school

Fab 8 workers' children impact classrooms

Saturday, August 24, 2013
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Ballston Spa School District Superintendent, Dr. Joseph Dragone, left, and Principal Jeffery Palmer talk about the pre-K and kindergarten rooms at Gordon Creek Elementary School. The new school  opens on September 4th in the Ballston Spa School District.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
Ballston Spa School District Superintendent, Dr. Joseph Dragone, left, and Principal Jeffery Palmer talk about the pre-K and kindergarten rooms at Gordon Creek Elementary School. The new school opens on September 4th in the Ballston Spa School District.

— Not many new schools are being built in these fiscally constrained times, but the Ballston Spa Central School District will open a gleaming new elementary school on Sept. 6.

The $23.6 million Gordon Creek Elementary School will have state-of-the-art electronic features like Smart Boards — think a giant iPad touchscreen at the front of every classroom — and wireless computing connections.

That Gordon Creek incorporates state-of-the-art technology is only fitting, since part of the need for a new school is due to the arrival in nearby Malta of a giant technology company, GlobalFoundries.

“When you look at the infrastructure, we think we’re really redesigning the template for the 21st century,” said Ballston Spa Superintendent Joseph Dragone. “In general, kids are already immersed in these environments.”

The Ballston Spa district today has about 4,400 students, making it one of the largest districts in Saratoga County.

Ballston Spa saw a significant enrollment spurt in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as surrounding communities within the district — Malta and Milton — experienced residential subdivision growth. Now, there’s the distinct possibility the region’s high-tech economic evolution could be bringing more students in the future.

A chunk of the district’s expenses — a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes that will be about $8 million this year, compared to a $43.1 million tax levy — is being borne by the GlobalFoundries Fab 8 computer chip plant, where 2,100 people now work.

GlobalFoundries is hiring a diverse international workforce, and employees’ families are having an impact on Ballston Spa and other school districts across the region.

“Our [English as Second Language] program really used to be just for Spanish, but now it’s for something like eight languages, Chinese and everything else,” Dragone said.

The opening of Gordon Creek is the first big milestone in a voter-approved $50 million school renovation project. It responds in part to student enrollment growth, but also to the aging of classroom buildings built as long ago as 1900. A 1970s elementary school with an outdated “open classroom” design will be demolished, so there will be little net increase in classroom space.

Dragone said the construction and renovation was going to be needed even if GlobalFoundries hadn’t arrived.

“We’d still need to be fixing buildings that are 100 years old,” he said last week.

But while the project would be needed anyway, the revenue from GlobalFoundries means district residents are paying less in taxes, Dragone said.

“The reality is, any revenue from economic development that comes into the school district is a gain for the taxpayer,” Dragone said. “Our tax rates have gone down, and that’s a direct result of more people paying in.”

While the Ballston Spa and Stillwater school districts see the revenue benefits of Fab 8, employees are settling throughout the area.

The GlobalFoundries workforce is going to keep growing. In addition to the 2,100 working there now — nearly all of whom have come since 2011 — there is a $2 billion research-and-development center under construction where another 1,000 will work. A large second factory is in the planning stages and could bring a couple thousand more jobs.

“It’s all good news,” Dragone said.

To date, about half the GlobalFoundries workforce has come from outside the Capital Region. Some are moving from U.S. technology hubs in Texas, Oregon or California, while others have come from Europe and Asia. GlobalFoundries has other production facilities in Germany and Singapore. Some experienced employees are taking temporary or permanent assignments to help get Fab 8 started.

GlobalFoundries spokesman Travis Bullard said about 70 percent of the company’s employees live in Saratoga County, with the biggest concentrations in Clifton Park, Saratoga Springs and Malta.

Not all of the employees have children, but enough do that the schools are noticing. The employees are generally young enough that their children are elementary-age.

“We’ve seen an impact on our demand for [English as a second language classes],” said Michael Piccirillo, superintendent of the Saratoga Springs City School District. “I believe we have kids in our ESL class that speak 12 different languages.”

Piccirillo said the GlobalFoundries families aren’t having a significant impact on the 6,500-student district’s enrollment, but there’s been a noticeable increase in ethnic diversity, especially at the elementary level.

“Everyone knows that Ballston Spa is the main player when it comes to GlobalFoundries, but everyone else is seeing a little bit of an impact,” Piccirillo said.

The Shenendehowa Central School District in Clifton Park has also seen an increase in demand for ESL services, a spokeswoman said. The district has also begun planning for another elementary school, in case there’s a surge in enrollment.

The smaller Stillwater Central School District, while it shares part of GlobalFoundries’ 223-acre site with the Ballston Spa district, has yet to see an enrollment impact, said Superintendent Dr. Stanley Maziejka.

“We do have a long-range facilities plan in place that gives consideration to potential enrollment growth,” he wrote in an email. “That said, such growth is very difficult to predict.”

Dragone said Ballston Spa’s recent enrollment growth can’t be attributed directly to GlobalFoundries, but enrollment has grown.

“Maybe two years ago, we saw a bump in [elementary] enrollment of about 5 percent, but it’s been steady since then,” Dragone said. “We work hard to take a real personal approach to everyone who moves into the district.”

At the high school level, the Ballston Spa district has made other moves to appeal to a more international student body. Like districts everywhere, it is also increasing its emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math courses.

In 2011, the district developed a new International Baccalaureate degree program. The IB program offers a rigorous high school curriculum that is viewed favorably in college admissions offices, and it has been promoted as a benefit for families that settle in Ballston Spa. Separate from its tax payments, GlobalFoundries last year made a $20,000 donation to support the program.

There’s also an early college-high school program in which high school students can train at Hudson Valley Community College’s TEC-SMART facility for technology jobs, and a new partnership is being developed with Siena College, Dragone said.

Should the district see another enrollment spurt, Dragone said Ballston Spa has the ability to accommodate another 200 to 250 students in its existing facilities.

 
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