JOHNSTOWN -- For the first time in the Greater Johnstown School District's history, it held a "virtual public hearing" Wednesday night to discuss the potential fate of its oldest school building, Knox Junior High School.
During the virtual meeting, the school board discussed a plan to restructure its school buildings to relocate 7th- and 8th-grade students from Knox to Johnstown High School.
The plan, called Option 5, is projected to save the district $600,000, enabling the school board to propose a smaller tax levy hike — 9 percent increase instead of a projected 14 percent increase — for its 2020-21 budget proposal.
Johnstown has been grappling with a financial crisis for the last several years, forcing it to ask for tax-cap busting tax levy increases and looking for ways to cut expenses, all in an attempt to close the district's more than $3 million annual budget deficit.
Knox Junior High School has sometimes been called "a sacred cow" of the school district. Built in 1930, it has been the place where generations of the city's residents spent their early teen years. When the district's school board briefly considered closing the building in 2009 as a means of addressing declining enrollment, residents packed the high school's auditorium to protest the change. The idea was ultimately abandoned in favor of closing Jansen Avenue Elementary School instead.
Tuesday night's meeting was very different. The district held the meeting online due to the social distancing mandates from Gov. Andrew Cuomo. In a bid to slow the spread of coronavirus, Cuomo has issued an executive order allowing local governments to conduct public meetings and hearings without members of the public attending in person.
School board President Chris Tallon said the board received about 8 call-in questions and several questions via email and Facebook.
He said the Option 5 plan became possible when the P-Tech program currently operating in Johnstown High School notified the district that it would be relocating next year, freeing up enough space at the high school to accommodate 7th and 8th grade.
Prior to that the district had been considering a plan called Option 1, which would close Glebe Street Elementary School and move K-2nd grade to Pleasant Avenue School; move 3rd-5th grades to Warren Street School; and 6th-8th grades to Knox Junior High School.
That plan would likely also involve moving the HFM BOCES P-Tech school now located at Jansen Avenue to Glebe Street, enabling the district to sell Jansen Avenue.
Tallon said Option 1 would save the district about $450,000.
Under Option 5, Glebe Street, which is a twin building to Jansen, likely still becomes the new home for P-Tech, while the district would educate all of its students from three buildings:
- Pleasant Avenue, K-2nd grade
- Warren Street, 3-6th grades
- Johnstown High School, 7-12th grades
Knox would be used for the district's pre-k program and Head Start, and the rest of the space could be rented out. The district would also look to either sell or rent out Jansen Avenue, as it did after it stopped using that building as an elementary school in 2009.
Tallon said he hasn't made his decision which plan he favors, although he has done research that indicates to him that a 7-12 school building is better in terms of student outcomes than a 6-8 middle school format, where 6th-graders tend not to do as well as they would if they were kept with the younger students.
District residents have been asked to complete an online survey located at johnstownschools.org/community-input-on-district-reconfiguration-survey to indicate which plan they prefer.
Tallon said he will heavily weigh the input from district residents who complete the survey before he decides which plan he favors.
Some of the questions to the school board Tuesday night during the virtual meeting included concerns about whether 7th- and 8th-grade students will be safe using the same building as older students.
Tallon said if the district chooses Option 5, an assistant principal will be hired for the 7th-8th grade section of the high school. He said the students will be kept apart most of the time, but the district is hoping the older students can be of help mentoring the younger students.
District officials have calculated the majority of the $600,000 in savings from the Option 5 plan will come from the elimination of personnel, including a building principal for Knox and food service workers.
Tallon said he knows district residents want Knox to remain a school building. He said under Option 5 the district would still use the Knox locker rooms for athletic games at Knox Field, and the repurposing would not violate any of the covenants in the Knox Foundation's donation agreement, from when the school was given to the district in 1930.
"It's still going to be the centerpoint of the district, it just wouldn't be offering the same curriculum as it does today to our 7th- and 8th-grade students," he said.
Tallon said once the school board decides which restructuring plan to proceed with it will stick to that plan regardless of the outcome of this year's school budget vote.
"The goal is to have the board make the decision at our April meeting, most likely that will also be a virtual meeting," Tallon said.