The Schenectady City School District may reopen Oneida Middle School as an elementary school to handle a forecasted influx of new students and those currently enrolled at the deteriorated Elmer Elementary School, which may be shut down.
The school board met late into the evening, and as of press time had not yet made a decision on a configuration for Oneida — which was shut down just last year as a cost-saving move. But they seemed persuaded to reopen the school in response to a demographics forecast and a report on the problems at Elmer.
Robert Hendriks, executive director of the Educational Legacy Planning Group, made the presentation. He said a two-year study showed Elmer cannot be saved, due to drainage problems and the small size of the lot on which it sits.
“It would have to be razed, and you’d never build a school on that site now,” he said.
The district had planned to install an $800,000 elevator at the school, but canceled that plan after he gave them the first draft of his analysis.
Board member Ron Lindsay said the district has known for at least 30 years that drainage problems were causing problems at Elmer. He said the board discussed closing it in the 1980s, but left it open after public outcry.
Now, Hendriks said, it must close. He told them frankly that bathrooms are so limited that students have sometimes urinated in their pants as they tried to get to an open toilet.
“Now is the time,” he said.
But the district can’t simply move the 381 students from Elmer to other elementary schools. Many of those schools are already above capacity and have turned closets and stairwells into extra classrooms.
“You don’t have capacity,” he said.
But the district desperately needs more space. By 2018, there are expected to be 152 additional students in the northern attendance zone, which includes Elmer and Yates, he said.
“Your largest area of growth will be in your northern zone,” he said.
He based his forecast on the age of the population there now, migratory patterns, home sales and other trends.
If the district closes Elmer, it has to find room in that zone for not only the 381 Elmer students, but also 152 new students. That means building a much larger elementary school. Or using Oneida.
He said the district could renovate Oneida for $18 million, of which the state would likely cover 96 percent of the cost. That would leave the district to pay $720,000 over the course of 15 years. That’s $48,000 a year, plus interest.
The district could instead build a new school, but he said that would cost $34 million, of which the state would only pay about $24 million. If the district also sold Oneida for $2 million, the district would have to pay off a 30-year loan at $275,000 per year, plus interest.
Board members said they were strongly persuaded to renovate Oneida because of the cost, but Lindsay and Andrew Chestnut argued the district needed a long-term plan for all the schools.
“We moved kids around,” Lindsay said, referencing last year’s decision to close Oneida Middle School. “We can’t keep moving kids and staff all over the place.”
Chestnut added that he wanted all the schools to eventually offer the same configuration — whether it’s K-6 or K-8. Otherwise, he said, “I don’t think we could possibly have equity for all students.”
But he said he was willing to support a plan that didn’t change every school at once. He said he would support renovating Oneida as a K-6 school, and then turning it into a K-8 building once other schools had been expanded to offer K-8.
Other board members supported K-8, but the numbers might be against them, Hendriks said. The district’s elementary schools have a maximum capacity of 5,720 students. In 2018, they are expected to have 6,033 students.
That figure gets worse if the district closes two of its leased schools, Blodgett and FDR, as well as Elmer. The board has already decided to close Blodgett and has discussed closing FDR.
If all three are closed, the total capacity for the district’s elementary schools will be 4,986 students, Hendriks said.
“Your most urgent need is K-6 capacity,” he said, “so that’s why there’s an urgency here.”
He said the district could renovate and reopen Oneida by September 2016 if it made a decision within a month. Some board members were skeptical they could make a decision that quickly.