Questions over whether the school district policy on school closures had been followed helped derail any talk of a school closure in Niskayuna, putting off for at least a year the unpopular closure of Birchwood Elementary School.
Beyond procedure and policy, the Board of Education’s discussion Tuesday night indicated concerns about the long-term viability of any plan to close a school.
With school closure now off the table, and the resulting $415,000 in 2014-2015 savings now erased, budget talks will soon intensify as board members try to close a budget gap that could be $2.6 million.
“The decision we’ve made … is going to hurt,” board member Robert Winchester said just prior to the body’s unanimous vote to end the closure discussion for the school year. “It’s going to hurt in a lot of areas.”
He said the community has to understand why the board will be making those budget decisions, rather than implementing one of the options that included closing a school.
“I hope that you understand that we’ll do the best we can,” Winchester added, “but those things do impact kids and programs and people and parents.”
The vote to officially table the discussion was met by loud applause in the packed Van Antwerp Middle School auditorium.
The board Tuesday night also unanimously voted to redraw elementary school attendance zones to equalize class sizes between the five elementary schools. Parents could learn by mid-March whether their child will be changing schools next year.
The district itself is expected to get a better idea in March how much the board will have to cut — whether it’s the initially projected $2.6 million or more or less. The state is to calculate and announce local property tax caps March 1, and a final state aid projection is expected March 31.
District officials have said a decision on school closure couldn’t wait until the final budget talks. Had the board decided to close a school, it couldn’t have been completed properly in a shorter time frame.
But board members didn’t appear to even get to the question of whether or not a school should be closed Tuesday evening. They wanted more information and even questioned whether district policy made it possible.
Beginning early last summer, a committee made up of community members and district officials gathered information on attendance and facilities, then presented its findings to the board, recommending three possible school closure options.
It was expected this would meet a requirement established in a 1996 board policy on closing of facilities.
Superintendent Susan Kay Salvaggio said Tuesday night that she sent the policy to legal counsel, who said the committee did meet the requirements. Specifically, the committee membership had the “professionally trained experts” called for in the policy.
Board President Deb Oriola, though, disagreed, and also argued that the committee didn’t begin as a school closure committee. Her comments were met with another round of applause from those in attendance.
Board members Barbara Mauro and Kevin Laurilliard also said they found the committee didn’t meet the requirements. Mauro said a closure committee should look at the individual school to be closed. Laurilliard said public comment should have been sought from the community around the schools that might be closed before the decision was made to close one. He noted Birchwood wasn’t named for closure until just two weeks ago.
The policy discussion led to a brief executive session after a board member asked specifically what the school district’s attorney said. When the board returned, Winchester moved to table the discussion for the year.
Mauro’s questions extended to what would happen after a school was closed — whether four elementary schools would cover the district’s needs into the future. Salvaggio said they are projected to be adequate through the end of 2017-2018, but in that final year the district would have to take back classrooms leased to BOCES.
Laurilliard also said it hasn’t been shown to him that the board needs to close a school to close its budget gap.
Board member John Buhrmaster said he believed the board handled the whole issue poorly. He apologized to Salvaggio and staff that the board put them through all the questions for naught.
“We’re doing the best we can. Nobody wants to close a school,” Buhrmaster said. “But, you know what? The options aren’t very good no matter which way we look.”