AMSTERDAM -- After decades of holding an annual lottery to determine elementary school placement for new students, officials with the Greater Amsterdam School District have decided to "de-magnetize" and assign new students to the school closest to their home instead.
Amsterdam Interim Superintendent Raymond Colucciello said about 50 new students registered at the district on Wednesday for the first day of school. He said that in the past, elementary school assignments were based on preference and a lottery system. However, that policy has resulted in a convoluted system of bus routes, that, combined with a shortage of bus drivers, has resulted in transportation delays throughout the district.
"I was hoping things would go better today than they did," Colucciello said Wednesday. "We need more bus drivers. There is a shortage of them nationwide; if somebody has the bus driver's license, they can get a new job tomorrow."
Colucciello said Amsterdam has about a $3.5 million annual contract with the former Brown Transportation, which was recently purchased by a company named Student Transportation of America. He said that while the private company runs most of Amsterdam's more than 30 school bus routes, the district also has 19 paid school bus drivers for its own, in-house, smaller fleet of buses, costing $1 million annually.
Colucciello said the biggest issue with the private bus company isn't its new owner; it's that the company has between six and nine vacant bus driver positions it needs to fill, forcing bus drivers to double-up on routes, leading to delays.
During its Aug. 21 meeting, the GASD school board hired veteran school transportation administrator David VanSchaick for $60,000, to help reorganize Amsterdam's bus routes to cut costs and reduce delays.
School Board President Nelli Bush said she believes the transition from the "magnet school" model to a neighborhood elementary school system will take about three years to complete.
"Mr. VanSchaick is working on determining what the neighborhood school boundaries should be. When new students come in, if there is room in their particular grade in the school in the neighborhood where they live, they're going to be placed in that particular school. That's doing something without interrupting or interfering in the educational process of children who've already been in these elementary schools for a considerable amount of time," Bush said.
While neither Bush nor Colucciello were certain when Amsterdam became a magnet school district, they said the process probably occurred about 20 years ago. Colucciello, a 50-year veteran school administrator, said the magnet program provided millions of dollars in state and federal aid to enhance programming at elementary schools, giving each a particular academic focus, and allowing parents to choose which school they wanted their children to go to.
"It was meant to reduce racial isolation around the country. They let the kids and parents pick an elementary school, and then there was a lottery to see who got in which school," he said.
Amsterdam's elementary schools still have names based on the magnet concept:
• William B. Tecler Arts in Education Magnet School
• William H. Barkley MicroSociety Magnet School
• RJ McNulty Academy for International Studies & Literacy Magnet School
• Marie Curie Institute of Engineering and Communications
The school's websites also continue to emphasize the academic focus, including mission statements, such as, "At Tecler, the arts are integrated into the curriculum, so students can develop into leaders and learn to become curious, imaginative problem-solvers who are able to express ideas through a variety of artistic means.
Artistic expression is woven into coursework, and students are introduced to a broad range of artists, including local authors and illustrators, musicians and skilled craftspeople."
Colucciello said after the funding ended for the magnet concept about 10 years ago, the district no longer had the money for the staff necessary to completely fulfill the different focus concepts at the elementary schools.
He said the schools still attempt to live up to those focuses in some ways, but not as robustly as in the past. Some focuses, like the "MicroSociety" concept at William H. Barkley seem to have lost their meaning.
"It can mean whatever you want it to mean," Colucciello said, of the MicroSociety concept.
Colucciello said students who live less than two miles from their neighborhood school are not eligible to be transported by bus. So, in recent years parents have attempted to get their children placed at elementary schools that were farther away from their homes to ensure bus transportation.
"In Amsterdam it's been 'we need a ride,' more than a student wanting to go to an elementary school for engineering or the arts," he said.
Other areas the district is looking to reduce transportation costs include an "open call" to any neighboring school districts running bus routes for special needs students into Albany.
"There was a new state law that allows us to 'piggyback' onto another school district's route. We can share expenses so you don't have three buses from Johnstown, Gloversville and Amsterdam all stopped at the same traffic light, each with two students per bus, all going to the same place," Colucciello said.
One problem with the conversion to a neighborhood school concept may be sibling students from the same household, some of whom are already being bussed to a magnet school.
While Colucciello said the district will probably try to keep siblings together when younger siblings enroll in the district, the school board has not yet adopted an official policy for that issue.