It took Niskayuna school leaders more than two hours Tuesday night to decide whether to keep studying the possibility of closing Van Antwerp Middle School.
Closing Van Antwerp would save the Niskayuna Central School District about $800,000 — the main reason it was considered in the first place. The district is facing a $4.3 million budget gap in the 2013-2014 school year.
About 200 students, parents and teachers showed up at last week’s board meeting, and the several dozen who addressed the board urged them not to close the school. A crowd of about 50 showed up this week, but that number dwindled as the hours passed.
“So why are we having this conversation?” asked Superintendent Susan Kay Salvaggio at Tuesday’s meeting. “Because we need to. Because the conversation about how we configure our schools and how we configure our budget are intersected.”
In the last week, Salvaggio and other school leaders gathered data on what a district with one middle school, instead of the current two, would look like.
If Van Antwerp closed, all of the sixth graders could move to Iroquois Middle School temporarily until it could be expanded to house them all. Salvaggio met with Town Supervisor Joe Landry, who informed her that although there are currently no apartment complexes already approved for construction, there is an upscale, 166-unit complex near Rosa Road and Hillside Avenue that would take three years to build.
The more discussed option at Tuesday’s meeting was sending sixth graders back to each of the five elementary schools within the district. Iroquois would then house grade seven and eight only.
“We can accommodate sixth grade in our elementary schools,” said Salvaggio, who said she looked at school maps and had conversations with principals on the topic.
Using this year’s enrollment figures, attendance at Iroquois Middle School would grow from 564 to 660 under a one-school option.
“I’ve heard some conversation about mega schools and some conversation about, 'Oh my gosh, we’d have to make all the grades larger to accommodate this,’” said Salvaggio. “There’s no plan for that. That would be unacceptable. We would look to have our class sizes within our normal ranges.”
The board and school administration will continue to research programming, scheduling and staffing implications. By Jan. 8, it will review a list of alternative budget reduction scenarios. School districts are anticipating Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s state budget proposal by Jan. 22, so the board expects to make a decision on the middle school reconfiguration plan before Feb. 5.
It took about two hours, though, for the board to agree to follow this time line, which would be in concert with its regular budget process.
Board member Barbara Mauro wanted to erase the option entirely.
“Why would we want to keep discussing closing VA when it’s clear that the community doesn’t support it?” she said.
The upcoming budget process is going to be difficult, she said, and the board should be focusing its attention on ideas it can gain consensus on — like plans to raise revenue.
“The community is not going to accept it,” she said. “They don’t accept it now. They’re not going to accept it in February. Because of that, I don’t understand why we think it would be good to keep people in a constant state of agitation or anxiety until February.”
The board shouldn’t just look at closing Van Antwerp, or any school for that matter, from a budgetary perspective, said board member Robert Winchester. It needs to consider sound programming for students.
More important, he said, the board should listen to the population it serves.
“Our community has said, time and time again when we face difficult moments, that if you listen to us we will not only vote for your budget, but we will vote resoundingly for your budget.”
But other board members felt they shouldn’t take the option off of the table until they had more information. Everyone seemed to agree that no matter what option to reduce the budget they present to the community, they would see the same outpouring of protest they did last week.
“I do think that we have to examine it because there are no cuts that we can make that will not fill this room with people saying they don’t want to see that cut,” said board member John Buhrmaster. “Every area we have left to cut we will get 200 people in this room.”