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Elementary decisions

Closing schools on the table, but not only way district can go

by Crispin Kott
September 23, 2010 12:46 AM | 0 0 comments | 24 24 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Sophie Finn Elementary School, one of four schools currently “significantly under capacity.”
Sophie Finn Elementary School, one of four schools currently “significantly under capacity.”
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Will Kingston Board of Education trustees’ urge to become more efficient lead to the closing of one or more of the district’s elementary schools?

A recent study, still in draft form, of the efficiency of the Kingston City School District’s elementary schools outlines possibilities which include consolidating services and closing schools.  

At a meeting of the school board last week, Dr. Paul Seversky outlined some of the issues facing the district, including a continued decline in student population that’s likely to reverse itself within a decade. The study, conducted by Seversky through Advisory Solutions, was commissioned by the district last October at a cost of $36,685. The report was not completed at the time the study was presented, but school board President James Shaughnessy said he expected it would come before the weekend, at which time its findings would be made available to the public.  

“We contracted the study through Advisory Solutions because we needed to do enrollment projections and a capacity study for our elementary schools,” Shaughnessy said. “[Sobersky] is a retired district superintendent and BOCES assistant superintendent, and he has done this for quite a number of school districts over the years. We wanted to get someone with experience with this, and we think we’re getting a good report from him.” 

According to Shaughnessy, school officials proactively recognized that the steady decline in enrollment over the past few years was something they should look into, with regard to providing an equitable education to students while getting the most out of the district’s resources. While the study does show the district’s enrollment is likely to continue its downward trend over the next five years, leaving between 13.4 to 19.9 percent unused elementary school capacity in some buildings five years from now, Shaughnessy explained that because it’s expected to rise again to its present population of around 7,000, any moves to address the immediate present should be done with the understanding that they might need to be undone down the line.

“While we’ve had overall declining enrollments over the last four years or so, our kindergarten enrollments in the last three years have been going up,” Shaughnessy said. “The impact is that the declining enrollment that we saw in kindergarten in the early 2000s, that’s going to impact our overall enrollment until around 2015. And the increases in kindergarten lately will impact our overall student population going out 10 years.” 

But even if those numbers to climb back to where they are today 10 years from now, District Superintendent Gerard Gretzinger noted that the district’s present situation, with an elementary enrollment as of October 2009 at 3,054 and a total pupil capacity in the buildings an estimated 3,918, is not a model of efficiency.  

Four options

Even so, the draft report posited four potential options for reconfiguring the district in an effort to streamline its efficiency and ensure all of its elementary school students are being given an equitable education regardless of the building in which they attend school.

One of the options in the report suggests closing one of the district’s elementary schools and realigning its attendance boundaries so its students could go elsewhere. Such a move would also likely cause a ripple effect in the alignment zones so as to adequately ensure each school can function both efficiently and adequately under any new configuration.  

Four schools were listed as being significantly under capacity in the draft report, including Anna Devine (77 students under), Sophie Finn (76), Zena (73) and Frank L. Meagher (61). The report also indicated Meagher was in need of considerable renovations. While staff reductions in each instance ranged between seven and nine instructional employees, the study noted the possibility of using those educators in other capacities throughout the district.  

The second option in the study presented by Seversky was to combine the attendance zones for a number of schools in the district and create buildings with smaller grade disparities. Three of the existing elementary schools would cover students in grades K-2, with another three set aside for 3-5. The five remaining buildings would continue to serve students in grades K-5.  

Though it’s still unclear which of the impacted schools would serve which levels, attendance zones in Edward R. Crosby and Zena could be combined, as could Harry L. Edson and Chambers, along with Sophie Finn and John F. Kennedy.  

The third suggestion in the Advisory Solutions study would see Sophie Finn, Meagher or both cease functioning as elementary schools, with the former possibly turning into an alternative education center for students in grades 7-12, and the latter housing the central administration offices and pre-kindergarten classes.  

A fourth option that would also entirely alter Sophie Finn and Meagher is to turn one into a school serving K-2 with the other 3-5.

During the presentation, Seversky said there was no indication realigning any of the schools to serve less grade levels would have any impact on the educational experience of its students.  

Status quo unacceptable

While school officials stressed that even after the final report is submitted, it will still be too early to assume any of the suggestions is right around the corner. Even so, Gretzinger said something will have to be done.  

“There’s certainly an imbalance in our elementary schools, where we have one school that’s pretty much filled to capacity and others which are not,” he said. “Our contractual requirements with the KTF (Kingston Teachers Federation) as far as the number of students who are allowed in a classroom make it difficult to improve the situation on a small scale: You may have classes at around 23 to 24 students at Edson, whereas at JFK, the numbers may be a lot smaller with two classrooms of around 15 students because you can’t go over 30.”

Such imbalances aren’t just causing inefficiency in the district’s resources, but can also result in a significantly different educational experience for students.  

“Some schools have class sizes of 25 and other have 16 or 17,” said Shaughnessy. “That’s a big gap in terms of the services that our students have, and it’s something that the board really has to look at.” 

The final draft of the Advisory Solutions report may be due shortly, but any decision on how to address it won’t be made in the immediate future. School officials have said they want to provide absolute transparency in the process, soliciting opinions from members of the community. A committee Gretzinger said he hoped would include parents from each of the district’s 11 elementary attendance zones is likely to be formed soon, adding that the final report will not only be available in each of the district’s elementary schools, but will also likely appear on the district website.  

“We want people to be a part of the discussion,” Gretzinger said. “Even though the final decision will be that of the board of education, we want to involve the community. Nobody wants a neighborhood school to close, but people want to look at taxes and see if there are ways we can reduce them without hurting the educational experience of our students.”  

Shaughnessy said the board hasn’t discussed the report outside of the initial draft presentation by Seversky, but that they expect to address it at their next meeting in October. “The report presents to the board scenarios and options that Dr. Seversky thinks we should look at, but these are local decisions,” he said. “Anything in the report as a scenario is a possibility. It’s not something that the board has discussed yet, but it is something we will look at over the coming months.” 

The draft, a 66-page document, was constructed based on information gleaned starting last October. Principals of each of the district’s elementary schools provided information about how their services were distributed among the student body, with detailed space allocation data compared to the State Education Department’s school building-capacity guidelines. Additionally, future enrollment trends based on historical enrollment data, historical live data and local patterns of enrollment were also considered, as were in-depth discussions between Seversky’s group and the building principals.  

If schools improve, enrollment rises

Not a part of the equation is the district’s continued efforts to improve the quality of its education and the buildings in which the students are educated. Even though improved graduation rates and the high school renovation plan being discussed by school officials wouldn’t directly impact the elementary student population in the district, Shaughnessy said they do make the district a more attractive location for families considering a move to the area. And some of those families, he reasoned, might have kids who would attend elementary school.  

“Certainly that’s an opinion that I’ve held for a long time, and one of the reasons I feel we need to do the high school capital project, is that it’s an important piece of making Kingston and Ulster County a more attractive community for people to come into. I think the answer to the property tax burden is to increase our tax rolls. In the decision-making process, Kingston is in competition with neighboring towns like New Paltz, Rhinebeck and Red Hook. And it’s not that our program is lacking compared to anywhere else, but certainly the physical plant is.”

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