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Niskayuna school board weighs different approaches to major overhaul

Niskayuna school board weighs different approaches to major overhaul

Overall capital project expected to cost between $55 million and $70 million
Niskayuna school board weighs different approaches to major overhaul
The exterior to Van Antwerp Elementary School in Niskayuna is shown.
Photographer: Staff File Photo

The Niskayuna school board Saturday weighed a litany of tradeoffs as it pressed toward a decision on what building configurations will guide a capital project shaping up to cost between $55 million and $70 million.

The board has narrowed its choices to three options: keep the district’s buildings as is, with K-5 elementary schools, two 6-8 middle schools and a high school; have K-4 elementary schools and establish one 5-6 school and one 7-8 school where all students in the district would attend, and; maintain K-5 buildings, create a districtwide 6-8 middle school at Iroquois and potentially vacate Van Antwerp for academic uses.

The board is slated to select a final configuration at a meeting later this month, launching a phase of more detailed planning as the district and its consultants flesh out a plan to put up for voter approval in December.

During a work session Saturday, board members appeared to widely agree that maintaining the district’s current structure of two middle schools would not allow for the kind of academic programming changes the district is seeking. Teachers in the district have recommended a new middle school model to allow for equitable programming among all middle school students and to create the types of spaces that would facilitate innovative approaches to teaching in the middle grades. While the board retained the so-called “status quo” option, members seemed more inclined toward plans that make more significant changes in the middle level.

“Middle school teachers have made it clear they are ready for a change,” Niskayuna Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Marie Digirolamo said in response to a question about what teachers want. “Option 1 is called the status quo or baseline so that doesn’t feel like change.”

The other options, though, present their own challenges.

At over 100 years old, Van Antwerp comes with a long list of basic infrastructure needs and would require the district to make considerable investments to bring it to the same level as the district’s other buildings – prior to any addition or other renovations.

That “premium” at Van Antwerp would cost the district as much as $15 million to $20 million, according to the district’s architects and project managers, and could limit how far the district could go in upgrading other buildings.

“There is clearly going to need to be more investment related to anything we do at Van Antwerp,” Tony Armlin, a consultant with Saratoga Project Management, told the school board Saturday. “It’s a premium that has to be addressed in order to maintain program in this building, and there is a savings to move (academic) program out of this building.”

The third option under consideration could bypass those expensive improvements all together by potentially “mothballing” Van Antwerp and vacating it for educational uses. A large addition at Iroquois, coupled with broader changes to the joint Iroquois-Rosendale campus, would accommodate a large, districtwide 6-8 middle school at Iroquois.

But board members and Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. at Saturday’s meeting acknowledged the potential community resistance and political hurdles of closing a school building, something Tangorra has said would not be the end result of the capital project. Indeed, as the district faces projected enrollment numbers in the years to come, some of the proposed plans envision additions to varying degrees at all of the district’s school buildings.

“I’m hearing there is a huge push in one segment of our population to keep this school,” board member Greta Jansson said of Van Antwerp, noting that her “practical side” also saw advantages to investing the dollars needed to fix Van Antwerp in other parts of the district. “At the same time, you can’t take lightly the fact that people are so tied to their neighborhood school.”

The plan to split the middle level grades into one 5-6 building and one 7-8 building originally envisioned housing those schools at Van Antwerp and Iroquois, respectively. But one of the district’s architects suggested that the 5-6 building could be moved to Hillside, with a large addition there, and Van Antwerp could be used as an elementary school, potentially reducing the overall amount of work needed at that building.

While board members pressed for more specific cost estimates of this different projects, the district’s consultants didn’t specify those costs other than to say the first option – keeping the status quo and adding space at all the district’s schools – would be the most expensive. Like the first option, the second option carries the heavy cost of renovating Van Antwerp but would require a less ambitious addition at Iroquois, which would be necessary under the third option. Tangorra said the overall project would likely cost between $55 million and $70 million.

Tangorra and board members also suggested they didn’t want to push the project costs above the amount the district expects to save in debt payments over the coming year. Put simply, Tangorra hopes the project can be financed with “no additional tax impact,” instead replacing old debt expected to fall off the district’s books over the coming years with new debt to finance the project.

“I would absolutely not ask for any taxation increase for the capital project,” Board President Howard Schlossberg said.

The board is scheduled to discuss the various options and next steps at its Monday meeting, with a final decision on which option to pursue slated for no later than its March 24 meeting.

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