It’s official: The Schenectady City School District is closing its K-8 schools and switching back to an elementary and middle school configuration.
The school board met Wednesday — despite the snowstorm that closed the school district — to vote on the long-debated issue.
The vote was part of setting a referendum to spend $70 million to make three middle schools ready for students by 2016.
The public vote will be held March 25.
It is the first of at least four construction projects to create the new configuration, which also includes closing some schools that are in bad shape or too small or expensive to run. The estimated total for the projects is about $233 million.
The first phase, costing $70 million, is not expected to increase local taxes. The state will pay for 95 percent of the project through building aid and the district will use another state grant to pay the 5 percent local share.
“So it should not cost anything,” schools Superintendent Laurence Spring said, referring to the taxpayers.
A finance adviser told the board that in a worst-case scenario, taxpayers would pay $1.14 per $100,000 of assessed property.
The district would borrow money to cover the work, with the state reimbursing the district later.
The state building aid would also cover the interest paid by the district.
But Schenectady could run into some problems with borrowing $70 million, even temporarily.
The amount might go above the district’s debt limit, Spring said.
The referendum asks permission to exceed the debt limit for the project. That will pass if a supermajority of voters approves the referendum, Spring said.
“There are other strategies of handling that [debt limit]” if the referendum doesn’t get a supermajority, Spring added. “If there’s a supermajority in the vote, that gives us the greatest amount of flexibility in dealing with that.”
But if the referendum is voted down, board members and Spring said they would still not keep the K-8 schools.
“We are still committed to the pre-K-5, 6-8, 9-12 configuration,” Spring said. “This is not a referendum on that configuration.”
Spring acknowledged it would be difficult to create middle schools without a construction project. The project would create a separate area for sixth-graders at Mont Pleasant Middle School, reopen Oneida Middle School and undo the work that turned Central Park Middle School into a K-8 school four years ago.
It would also add modern science classrooms.
But Spring said voting against the project wouldn’t help save K-8, which has been strongly supported by the parents of students in those schools.
He said the middle school configuration gave the district the needed elementary school space for an expected surge in student population and the ability to offer the same opportunities in each school.
“If the project goes down, we will still have to wrestle with those issues,” he said.
School board member Andrew Chestnut, who had initially supported K-8, said the middle school configuration was the best solution.
“This was the best way we saw on navigating through those pieces,” he said, adding that at least the district can’t be criticized for not having a long-range plan anymore.
“It really represents filling a need the community has had for a long time: knowing where we’re going,” he said.