AMSTERDAM -- The Greater Amsterdam School District has set Jan. 3 as the deadline to apply to serve on the Redistricting Advisory Committee tasked with determining how to best de-magnetize the district's elementary schools.
The GASD School Board has decided to abandon the magnet elementary school concept put in place between 2005 and 2009 — whereby parents picked elementary schools based on school themes and an annual lottery system — and return to a neighborhood elementary school model, where school placement is determined by geography.
District officials say Amsterdam has been plagued in recent years by lengthy bus rides caused by a shortage of bus drivers and a convoluted bus route system caused by parents choosing magnet elementary schools more than two miles from their homes in order to qualify for bus transportation to and from school.
New York state education law provides transportation cost reimbursement for school districts for K-8 students who live 2 or more miles from school and for high school students who live more than 3 miles.
School Board President Nellie Bush said the current magnet school configuration, coupled with the shortage of bus drivers, has led to classrooms being disrupted by students brought to school late by the bus. She said the late bus routes also affect when students get home, some being dropped off after 4 p.m.
"When you're losing valuable academic time in a classroom, you've got to figure out what's going on, and we have elementary children — I've seen it with my own eyes — who are on a bus anywhere between when they get out of school at ten after 3 p.m. until quarter to 5 p.m.," Bush said. "That is not reasonable, and when you have many buses picking up children, duplicating the stops, that isn't efficient either. So, we have taken a look at what are the best ways to meet the needs of the children. This system has been going on for nine or ten years, so we can't turn it around overnight."
The magnet school model was originally promoted with federal and state grants aimed at reducing racial minority isolation within a school district, providing incentives for districts to create theme-based elementary schools. GASD stopped receiving the grant money in 2010.
Bush said many of the students attending schools within the district are now from approximately the same socio-economic background, with an estimated 73 percent of them living in poverty. She said she doubts the existence of an affluent neighborhood large enough to exclusively occupy any of its four elementary schools.
"That's why everybody in the school qualifies for free breakfast and free lunch — everybody," she said.
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.
Michele Downing, formerly a GASD assistant superintendent and currently a consultant for the district, presented a report examining the history of the district's magnet school system and its current problems during a community forum on Dec. 12.
According to Downing's "Preliminary GASD Redistricting Study" Amsterdam received its first approximately $500,000 federal magnet grant during the 05-06 school year, which it used to create the Raphael J. McNulty Academy for International Studies and Literacy.
"The GASD Board of Education upon review of the magnet program success at McNulty began a study of expanding the magnet initiative to the other elementary schools," Downing wrote. "As a result, the district received a New York State legislative grant of $300,000 to explore and expand the Magnet School Project in addition to the original funding of $500,000."
Downing's report showed GASD received $500,000 federal grants and $300,000 state grants, for combined annual funding of $800,000, for the 06-07, 07-08 and 08-09 school years.
GASD created the Marie Curie Institute of Engineering and Communications elementary school during the 06-07 school year, then added both the William H. Barkley MicroSociety Magnet School and the William B. Tecler Arts in Education Magnet School during the 08-09 school year.
Downing's report showed the $300,000 in annual state grants was "rolled into the foundation aid" the district receives annually from the state beginning with the 2010-11 school year.
Without the federal funding, the themes which distinguished the schools have dwindled.
"Remnants of the magnet themes can be seen in some buildings but the overall majority of the magnet programming went away when funding was lost," wrote Downing.
The Preliminary GASD Redistricting Study shows that returning to a neighborhood school model could reduce the number of school bus routes for Amsterdam by between 65 percent and 75 percent.
The report showed:
• GASD spends $4,763,880 on transportation costs, of which $3,969,564 is reimbursed by New York State, at an aid ratio of 90 percent
• 442 students ride district operated buses
• 2,766 students ride private company buses contracted to provide busing
• 155 students are transported by GASD buses to private schools providing special services to those students
• The district provides 2 buses for the PTech School for 2018-19, costing $100,982.
• 3,363 students total use the district's transportation system
Downing's report did not provide an estimate on how many students would no longer be eligible for a bus ride once the district switches to a neighborhood elementary system.
GASD School board member JoMarie DiTata said district officials have not yet provided specific estimates for how many students might be affected by a switch to the neighborhood system, but the board has been told it would allow for a significant reduction in the number of bus runs.
Downing's Preliminary GASD Redistricting Study suggests a timeline of requiring all K-5 pupils to attend a neighborhood school by the 2020-21 school year.
Bethany Schumann-McGhee, an attorney who formerly served as Amsterdam's 3rd Ward Supervisor, said she has multiple children attending the district who will be affected by the change.
"Honestly, I think most parents will tell you they are against redistricting — our children all attend the elementary school that we selected, for a variety of reasons," she said. "The District's plan would transfer my youngest to a neighborhood school in his fifth grade year — it is hard to be excited about that — but progress has to start somewhere. Difficult financial times call for tough, and often unpopular, choices ... the current transportation system cannot operate effectively, because school enrollment does not make geographic or logistical sense. If relocating students to neighborhood schools can free up funds to improve educational opportunities for our children, then it appears that the benefits outweigh the negatives and the District should move forward with its plan."
But it remains to be seen how long the district will take to transfer all of its K-5 pupils to a neighborhood school.
Bush said one of the issues the Redistricting Advisory Committee will look at is how many years the district should allow for the change-over.
"We aren't going to disrupt children to make this successful," Bush said. "That's why it's going to take a couple of years, 2 or 3 years, before it's finally completed."
GASD held its last elementary school lottery last spring and new enrollees at the district starting in September have been assigned to neighborhood schools, unless the pupil had a sibling already attending a magnet school.
Downing's report listed these tasks for the Redistricting Advisory Committee:
• Review and update the current Child Safety Zone designations
• Considerations for changing neighborhood boundaries to include new considerations such as before and after school daycare provisions
• Updating the district's transportation handbook
• Studying automated systems such as bus passes and cameras
DiTata said the school board will appoint a school administrator to work with the Redistricting Advisory Committee.
To apply to serve on the Redistricting Advisory Committee, send an email to Michele Downing at [email protected]