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Niskayuna board delays vote on school closing

Niskayuna board delays vote on school closing

The debate over whether to close an elementary school will stretch into next week, as members of the
Niskayuna board delays vote on school closing
Parents fill the auditorium at Van Antwerp Middle School for public comments during a Niskayuna School Board meeting on Tuesday, January 28, 2014 about the possible closing of Birchwood School.
Photographer: Patrick Dodson

The debate over whether to close an elementary school will stretch into next week, as members of the Niskayuna Central School District Board of Education have asked for more information upon which to base their decision.

The board put off a decision late Tuesday night after listening to two hours of comments from more than three dozen community residents and parents. Nearly all of the speakers urged the board not to close a school.

Several board members appeared sympathetic to keeping all schools open but were also mindful of the financial reality now facing the district.

“For me, it’s weighing whether it’s worth $415,000,” board member Patricia Lanotte said, referring to the estimated savings the district would see by closing an elementary school. “There’s just no way I wrap myself around doing this for $415,000.”

Her comment drew loud applause from the still-strong crowd that remained at the late hour. But Lanotte soon followed up by noting that if a school isn’t closed, the board will have to find that money elsewhere.

And it’s a lot more money: Officials have said the board could have to close a budget gap as large as $2.6 million.

“We all have to understand there’s costs to not doing this,” Lanotte said, “so the same people who come up here who say ‘Don’t close our school’ don’t get to come up here and say ‘I don’t like my class size, I want more this, I want more that.’ ”

Board members have been inundated with letters, emails and comments from the public as residents voice their opinion on whether a school should be closed.

The board has been considering closing a school since last year in an effort to save money as budget woes attributed to dwindling state aid persist. Birchwood Elementary School emerged as the leading contender during a school board strategy session last week.

Birchwood’s size and location — it is on the edge of town and has fewer classrooms than other schools — have made it a prime candidate for closure, board members have said. Also, closing Birchwood would impact the fewest students — 524 — than closing a different school, officials said. That total includes the student population at Birchwood plus students at other schools who would have to move to new buildings to make way for the Birchwood children.

The board is now set to decide on whether to close a school at its meeting Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Van Antwerp Middle School. The board directed school officials to return then with answers to more questions, including exactly how much of the total budget is subject to cuts and how reserve funds could or should play a role.

Board member Barbara Mauro questioned how long a school-closure plan would be viable. If there is only a little space remaining in the other four elementary schools, would it be used up quickly?

“My main concern is, do the numbers work?” she asked. “If they work for next year and the following year, do they keep working?”

Board member Kevin Laurilliard said he simply needed more information. He said he starts at the premise of maintaining neighborhood schools. To move from that, he needs to see a compelling need.

He also wants to see operating costs for each of the schools and an explanation of how officials arrived at the cost-saving estimates for school closures. The estimated savings for closing Van Antwerp Middle School was more than $900,000 last year, he said. This year, it was less than $600,000.

Then there’s the question of what a closed school could be used for, Laurilliard said, as well as which school would be most marketable.

“If we have to close a school, I say let’s do it right,” he added.

Closing an elementary school is not the board’s only cost-saving option. Board member John Buhrmaster advocates a middle-school campus option, which would still close an elementary school. He wants more information on how that would impact classes at the elementary schools.

Buhrmaster was ready to vote Tuesday night. Due to the late hour, though, he recommended picking the meeting up next week.

Board President Deborah Oriola said she sees the area growing. She’s concerned about the impact closing a school would have on the district’s ability to welcome young families.

Board member Debbie Gordon acknowledged those gathered for the meeting want to keep Birchwood open. Gordon also acknowledged letters and comments from others who advocate moving forward and closing a school.

Looking elsewhere for cuts in the budget, she said, “is so much easier said than done.”

“This is now my seventh year,” Gordon said, “and we’re scrubbing it and scrubbing it and scrubbing it.”

Board member Robert Winchester said he is torn because the board has to make a fiscally sound decision. He pointed out the board must ultimately put forward a budget that will meet voter approval.

The board last year chose to put to voters a budget that went over the state-mandated cap on property tax increases and would have cost taxpayers an additional $51 per year on average, and voters rejected it.

“You can argue that that’s on top of everything else, but that’s what it would have cost,” Winchester said. “The community said to us, ‘We can’t afford that,’ and they said it more resoundingly than they’ve ever voted on any other budget proposition in the history of Niskayuna.

“That’s the realty of what we have to deal with.”

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