Schenectady’s $70 million renovations project for five schools passed by a landslide Tuesday, with many voters saying it was a “no-brainer” because the work would be entirely funded by the state.
“They shouldn’t ask us if we want it,” said voter Frank Felts. “They should just send us the check.”
The school district was legally required to ask, of course. And at first, there was sizeable opposition.
But in the end, the vote was 73.6 percent in favor, with 826 “yes” votes and just 296 “no” votes.
The plan involves five phases in which the entire district will be reorganized into K-5 elementary schools, three middle schools for grades 6-8, and the two existing high schools (Schenectady and Steinmetz).
This means the district is abandoning its K-8 experiment, a configuration that had many strong supporters.
At a number of public meetings last year, parents of those not in K-8 buildings said they wanted to get in by having the entire district reorganizing that way.
But school board members eventually rejected the idea, saying that if the elementaries were turned into K-8 schools, some of them would be too small to hold advanced classes for eighth-graders.
There were some concerns that those who preferred K-8 would come out in force against Tuesday’s referendum.
But many voters said they were happy with the board’s decision.
“I never liked the idea of kindergarten through eighth grade,” said Patrick Comley, who voted yes in the referendum. “I think it’s better for them without the older kids there.”
He was among many who criticized the district’s attempts, in recent years, to create additional K-8 schools despite not having enough room for every student to stay in his or her building through eighth grade.
“I think they put a Band-aid on it to fit kids into schools the past couple years,” Comley said.
Voter Lisa Cyr voted yes after her son spent sixth grade at Paige Elementary, went to Oneida Middle School for seventh grade, and was moved back to Paige for eighth when Oneida was closed.
“It was not good, going back and forth,” she said. “It was probably his worst academic year,” she said referring to eighth grade.
She was pleased that the project would open three middle schools with enough room for all of the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in the district.
Superintendent Laurence Spring said many voters told him the referendum was so certain to win that they weren’t going to bother voting.
He was particularly worried about whether the district would get a supermajority — over 60 percent of the vote — so that it could exceed its debt limit if necessary to finance the project. It will be entirely paid through state funds, but the state will only pay when the work is done, so the district must get out a loan in the interim.
He was elated when the supermajority vote came in.
“This is fantastic,” he said. “We’re going to be able to do really nice things to ensure sixth-graders have a smooth transition as they step into the middle school environment.”
Voters also said they were pleased to have middle schools again, saying they worked for previous generations. Some voters also blamed the violence at Mont Pleasant Middle School on the number of students there, saying the district was wrong to close Oneida Middle School and increase the student population at the one remaining middle school.
But some voters weren’t so sure.
“Obviously, the district has changed course, but I think they made a fairly good case for it, and I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt,” said voter Joan Elliott.
Retired teacher Jerry Englebardt dismissed the entire debate, saying the building grade configuration “makes no difference.”
But he voted yes because the project would provide much-needed repairs, he said.
A few voted no. Among them was Joel Gomez-Dossi, who said he wasn’t convinced that the district was making a final decision on its grade configuration.
He noted that Central Park had been converted from a middle school to an elementary school and will now be converted back in this project.
“It seems every few years they’re coming up with a new list of needs,” he said. “There’s a lack of foresight.”
The first phase focuses on middle schools. Oneida will reopen, Central Park will revert to a middle school and Mont Pleasant will get much-needed repairs. Two elementary schools will also be renovated to add space for more students, with the goal of closing Elmer Elementary School when the work is done in 2016.
Van Corlaer will get three more classrooms, placed where the stage is now. Howe will be turned back into an elementary school and will get a second story added to its new wing, adding four classrooms.
Later phases will include every other building in the district.
“This is getting us started on a systematic process for repairing and upkeep of our buildings,” Spring said. “We’re not getting everything done [in the first phase] that needs to be done. That’s OK. We’re taking a very long-term view.”