It seemed like the Schenectady City School District Board of Education had pulled the plug on K-8 schools, but members may now be rethinking that decision.
Two board members called for a slowdown on construction plans Wednesday in the wake of continued criticism from parents who want to leave the district’s kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools alone.
Two other board members enumerated several reasons they saw for rushing to renovate schools into K-5 buildings, but Superintendent Laurence Spring said the board could take its time — if parents were willing to tolerate current conditions for another year.
Those conditions include some crowded schools and an elementary school with only one functioning bathroom. Also, he warned that the board would likely have to pay an architect more if it hired one without knowing whether that architect should design a middle school or expansions for K-8 schools.
The main reason for a speedy decision is the deteriorating conditions at Elmer Elementary School, which has only one bathroom. It will close under all of the scenarios considered by the board. The only question is when.
Spring said the closing could be delayed a year if parents were willing to tolerate it.
Likewise, a delay in the K-5 vs. K-8 decision would delay a long-term solution at the Zoller and Paige schools, where there is not enough room for every sixth-grader to move up to their school’s seventh grade.
“Parents feel they were promised space,” Spring said.
As for other schools, he said the district could easily renew — and probably should renew — several leases. The district stands to save money by ending some leases after the construction project.
Board member Ann Reilly said all of those reasons were cause to hurry.
“There is in my mind some urgency,” she said. “Elmer has how many years left? We have a building closing. So that means we need to redistrict.”
Board member John Foley added that the district needs a long-term plan for the projected influx of new students in a few years.
“Although I am uncomfortable with the need to act so quickly ... we do have to be prepared for the growth of students that is projected on the north side of the city,” he said.
But board member Andrew Chestnut said the board was moving in the wrong direction.
He said the board was willing to give up successful K-8 schools in exchange for new middle schools just to solve “the problem of every kid being able to take algebra in eighth grade.”
If the district had only K-8 schools, some would have too few advanced students to fill an algebra class. Board members balked at not offering algebra to every advanced student and said middle schools for all would be a fairer solution.
Chestnut said that would create a host of other problems.
“Where are the successful middle schools in this city?” he asked rhetorically.
He said the algebra class problem could be solved far more simply through busing or distance learning.
“Is it really ultimately more complicated than making middle schools work?” he asked.
Board member Ron Lindsay also expressed concern.
“I hope we will slow down this process,” he said.
Spring tried to offer a compromise: Keep both K-5 and K-8 schools, as the district has now.
“The thing I’m hearing is maybe we don’t need one model for the entire district,” he said.
He added that it would be very difficult to create K-8 configurations at every school. Board members were told that expanding buildings for K-8 would be much more expensive than creating a districtwide K-5 model, although no one has announced actual figures to compare the costs of each.
Spring said K-8 probably could not be “universal.”
“But that’s OK,” he said. “There’s no rule we can’t have a hybrid model.”
The comments pleased parent Margaret Beaton, who told the board it had a “fake sense of urgency.”
“Leases are renewable. Temporary options are always available,” she said. “You yourselves adopted a goal of building a student community that builds student success.”
The K-8 schools do that, she argued, citing the advantages to students staying in one school for nine years. Teachers get to know them well, students form closer bonds with each other and parents are involved with the school for longer periods of time, she said.
At Central Park International Magnet School, the district’s first K-8 school, administrators also saw a decrease in disciplinary problems.
Other parents also spoke in favor of the K-8 model, and none spoke against it. But Reilly said she had heard from others who preferred K-5.
Chestnut warned that those who were not mobilizing to speak at board meetings were also less likely to vote. The construction plans for whichever model is chosen must be approved through a referendum.
“If they don’t like what we propose, they’re not going to vote for it,” he said.