The Niskayuna school board plans to meet Tuesday night as the board nears a major decision on how to configure its middle-level grades ahead of a capital project that could reach as high as $70 million.
The board on Monday also faced new questions from community members about its management of the project and heard again the concerns some parents have with shifting away from the district’s current middle school structure.
The details of the capital project – which district officials plans to put for voter approval in December – largely hinge on how the school board wants to approach education in the middle-level grades over the coming years: maintain the current model of two 6-8 middle schools; shift to a single 6-8 middle school, or establish one 5-6 school and one 7-8 school, both for all students in the district.
During an hours-long work session last weekend, most board members appeared ready to eliminate the status quo option and move forward with what would ultimately result in a major overhaul of middle school in Niskayuna.
The district’s teachers have been broadly supportive of a new approach to middle school, creating opportunities to try new approaches to teaching and providing all students in the district with a comparable middle school program.
But a steady stream of parents over the past few months have called on board members to protect the district’s tradition of “neighborhood schools” and supported maintaining the district’s current grade-level configuration. Parents have raised concerns that the new middle school options would limit the ability of students to walk to school and force kids into long bus rides.
“It sounds like change is being held at a premium, I have concerns with that,” Tess Healey, the parent of a ninth grader and Van Antwerp seventh grader, told the school board Monday.
Some parents have argued an expanded middle school could present social and emotional challenges for students or that adding a new grade-level building would force strain through another transition in and out of a new school.
Others at Monday’s meeting raised broader issues about how the district is managing the broader project and how well they have communicated with residents as they project has progressed.
Pat Lanotte, a former school board member, on Monday raised questions about the cost the district’s architects quoted for performing a building conditions survey the district must conduct every five years – regardless of plans to ask voters to support a capital project. The board approved a $180,000 contract with the district’s architect, Syracuse-based King & King, to conduct a $140,000 survey of the district’s building needs and to cover $40,000 in so-called “pre-referendum services,” research and planning the firm has done to prepare for the potential December vote.
Lanotte argued that the district’s last building conditions survey was conducted at a fraction of the cost by CSArch, and Albany-based firm, and questioned why the district didn’t solicit multiple bids to conduct the buildings survey. Tangorra in response called CSArch’s previous work for the district “deficient” and said multiple bids aren’t required for contracts for professional services.
“We are asking the taxpayers for a lot, and I would love to support that, but when I see this kind of thing I get a little confused,” Lanotte told the board.